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Early American Dolls

Toy Dolls do not seem to have existed among primitive peoples.  There were numerous images and idols, but objects so enwrapped in dangerous mysteries were not safe companions for children.  Small images, for example, were employed in such pleasant pursuit as the “annihilation” of one’s enemies.  Little figures of clay or wax were burned or pierced with thorns in the belief that death would result for the person whom the figure represented.  Yet it is possible that as belief faded and the little figures lost their place in these and other rites, they may have become toys.   As soon as civilization arises, toy dolls appear.  Thus, the ancient Egyptians had dolls made of clay, wood, plaster or wax.

Children in Colonial America usually played with crudely carved dolls of wood with painted faces and painted hair.  At first the wooden doll was a straight and stiff little playmate, since her arms and legs did not move.  A step forward was marked when the arms and legs were jointed, no matter how crudely or insecurely, and so made moveable.  There were also dolls made of rags and other less permanent materials such as cornhusks.  The imaginations of their small owners easily supplied any lack of lifelike attributes in the dolls themselves.

Meanwhile, in Europe at the end of the seventeenth century certain improvements were introduced into the manufacture of the doll.  Her body might be fashioned of cloth, and a spine of wire might allow her to assume more natural poses. Her head also became somewhat more lifelike when plaster was put over the wood and her features painted.  A wig of hair added much to the beauty of her coiffure.  Glass eyes were also inserted in the wood, though they were quite stationary.  Always they stared.  But the dolls were still made to order and these improvements made them so expensive that few children possessed such “elegant” ones.

“Letitia Penn” – possibly the oldest doll in American brought from England by William Penn in 1699.

(From the 1937 Imogene Anderson Exhibit Collection)

In 1699 William Penn brought one of these dolls from England, as a gift from his little daughter, Letitia, to a friend in Philadelphia.  “Letitia Penn” is thus probably the oldest doll in America and the most famous individual doll in the Imogene Anderson Collection.  She is twenty inches high and wears the court dress of the period made of striped brocade and velvet.  The full skirt is stretched by a crinoline.  Though her plaster face is cracked and she has lost an arm, “Letitia” still retains her style.

Other imported wooden dolls of some sophistication are “Abigail van Rensselaer” and “Mehetable Hodges.” The first is especial interest to New Yorkers because the van Rensselaer girls once owned her.  She dates from about 1740-1760, and wears a black silk, full-skirted dress with white lace at the throat and an unusual white net headdress.  “Abigail” stands very straight on her base with the dignity which befits a representative of the great manor of Rensselaerswyck.  “Mehetable Hodges” has had an equally interesting career.  She was brought to America from France in 1724 by way of Canton, China.  Capt. Gamaliel Hodges of Salem (Mass) presented her to his little daughter, Anstiss.  “Mehetable” is dressed in the pink silk and handmade laces of a great lady of the court of Louis XV.  Today, (1937) after a lapse of two centuries, her white kid gloves are still unsoiled and on her cheeks still bloom high  spots of  rouge.  She is also known as the