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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 “Salem Doll,” and is probably the oldest known French doll in America.

In the later part of the eighteenth century, a few wax dolls began to reach American from England and France.  The slightly transparent surface of the hollow beeswax heads and arms of these dolls gave them a lifelike appearance both in complexion and expression.  During the eighteenth century their bodies were usually of wood, or of kid or cloth stuffed with bran or rags.  These dolls were long, stiff and not jointed.  Their arms were often short in proportion to their bodies.  The glass eyes were difficult to make and usually of brown color, though violet and sapphire are found in rare cases.  (Queen Victoria set the fashion for dolls with light blue eyes, so that they are very plentiful for a later period.) The eyes were occasionally made to open and shut by means of a wire pull, which emerged through the body or at the right side of the head under the edge of the wig.  Though the plastic realism of these dolls endeared them to children, they had their drawbacks.  Their faces had to be washed with butter, which might soil the hair of the doll or the frock of her mistress.  They might melt in the hot summer sun or crack in extreme cold.  Thus, early wax dolls are among the rarest to be found today.  By the end of the eighteenth century, these and other dolls were being made commercially, while before that time they had been made only to order.

“Miss Lillie” – 1790 1937 Exhibit Photograph

Since the seventeenth century, France had systematically been sending “fashion” dolls all over the world to show the Parisian fashions of the day.  Some of the oldest of the American wax dolls are of this type.  In 1790 such a doll was imported from Paris into Philadelphia, and was soon given to Miss Lillie E. Turner of Bristol, R.I.  Though “Miss Lillie” has lost all the color in her cheeks and looks her age, she still retains the original finery in which she crossed the ocean.  Her white hair is adorned with a real thread lace cap surmounted by commercially a blue satin bonnet.  Her dress is of sheer white linen yellowed with age.  She wears handmade, brown kid shoes.  “Miss Lillie” is probably the oldest wire-pull doll with an American history.  A doll similar to her is “Mona Lisa,” who always smiles.  But she was made, while “Miss Lillie” was made to order.

“Anstiss Derby” is another manikin doll, who came from France to Salem in 1826.  Her dress and coiffure were copied for the first ball of young Martha Derby, granddaughter of Elias Hasket Derby, who was a powerful figure in the Salem East India trade. “Anstiss” has beautiful brown eyes, and is very aristocratic looking with her white kid arms, elaborate hair dress entwined with silver ribbon and pink roses, and a gown of blue satin and silver braid.

An innovation during the early eighteenth century was the peddler doll.  These dolls represent the peddlers and costermongers who hawked their wares in the London streets from morn till night.  Around their necks were suspended large baskets which contained everything from pins and laces to pots and pans.  The dolls were dressed by women to show their skill in needlework.  One “Polly Peddler” in the collection is made of wax and dates from the early eighteenth century.  She is a frail old lady who leans upon a cane and has put down her basket that she may rest.  Another “Miss Polly Peddler” is made of wood and dated 1790.  She is eighteen inches tall, has her tiny peddling license, No. 09977, and carries a basket which contains a full Bristol tea set, string of pearls, dominoes, cards, laces, pins and dozens of other minute articles.

Wax Peddleer Dolll (Wood & fabric – 18″ Tall)) Early 18th Century 1937 Exhibit Photograph

But the wax dolls of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with their short kid arms round faces and staring eyes appear primitive when compared with those shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.  These dolls were made by Madame Montanari of England, one of the three leading doll manufactures of her time. She developed a method of imbedding the hair, eyelashes and eyebrows in the wax, instead of using wigs and paint.  Each hair has the appearance of being inserted separately, which produces a most realistic effect.  Madame Montanari also enlarge the doll family to include all ages from babyhood forward. Before this time dolls had represented only adults.

“Louise” is one of the finest of the Montanari dolls. Her large blue glass eyes, golden hair, natural pose and dimpled cheeks are most lifelike. Her hands and feet are so finely executed that each dimple and each detail of the nails are shown.  She is dress in the finest of white hand-embroidered nainsook.  Posed with “Loiuse” is a Montanare model of a young girl with a head which turns.

But by 1850 the modern period of doll making had been reached.  Dolls had been made for commercial profit since 1800, and a variety of materials had come to be used in their construction.  Heads, arms and legs were of china, wax or papier-mache.  Real hair was in general use.  Bodies were made of leather or fabric, filled with sawdust, bran, cork, hair, or even sweet scented hay. The movable head was invented, and also ball-joints.  In 1827 a speaking doll was patented in Paris.  One which could walk by herself had appeared the previous year. Specialization had become common, and in the 1840s a doll was reckoned to consist of ten separate pieces.  Each part was made by a skilled specialist, who devoted much time to improving this particular work.

In addition to the dolls which show so well the development of doll making between 1699 and 1850, the Collection contains many dolls of unusual association and interest.  A waxen “Jenny Lind” came to America in 1850, shortly before the “Swedish Nightingale” arrived to sing at Castle Garden in New York City.  There are the “Queen Victoria” and “Disraeli dolls with beautiful china heads.  There are also the three Alcott dolls, who represent the heroines of Little Women.  Their hair was made from hair of the Alcott sister and their dresses fashioned from materials taken from the girls ‘own dresses.  The smallest, “Amy,” is six inches high, and “Meg” is seven, while “Jo” measures eight inches from crown to toe.  Other dolls carried calomel and quinine in their hollow heads through the Federal lines to the Southern troops during the Civil War.  One wooden “Murder Doll,” with a black mustache and a frightful red gash on his head, was used as an exhibit in the trial of a ship’s mate who killed his captain.  Pathetic little “Grave Dolls” in sealed, glass covered “coffins,” were laid on the graves of their unfortunate little mistresses, or fastened with a wire loop to the tombstones.

During July and August 1937 the Imogene Anderson Doll Collection was on display at the Hancock House here in Ticonderoga, NY.  At the time, Edward P.(porter) Alexander, then Director of the “Headquarters House” (aka – Hancock House) wrote the text that accompanied the pamphlet written for the exhibit.

Mrs. Imogene Anderson, of Rye, NY, had been collecting dolls for a quarter of century. She was one of the first to appreciate their value and interest.  Mrs. Anderson always sought to obtain authentic documentary proof of the age and history of each doll.  Not only did her 200 young charges illustrate the processes of doll manufacture, but they also through light on the dress and social habits of other times.  The doll has thus become a valuable source of social history.

As Christmas is one of the favorite times of the year in which dolls are gifted, it is our wish that this edited article of Early American Dolls is informative and provides a sense of cultural history in the characters of human likeness through dolls down through the ages. 

Our most recent donation 1920s Doll – Washington Bedroom

The Society has a small doll collection.  Several of the dolls from the collection are on display for this year’s “Festival of Trees.”

12/25/16 wgd

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