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.