Historically Speaking: Dolls, past and present
By Lily Kongslien
Special to the Star Journal
Webster defines a “doll” as “a small-scale figure of a human being used especially as a child’s plaything.” Dolls have been enjoyed by all ages, in all countries and all societies for centuries. The word doll came to being in 1750; before that they were called puppets, babes, babies and little ladies. The first dolls were thought to bring good luck to owner. The oldest dolls were from the Egyptians and were called “paddle dolls,” made from thin pieces of board carved in the shape of canoe paddles. Lines were carved and painted on them to look like clothes.
Hair was made of strings of beads and they were made without legs so they could not run away. Many of these first dolls were made to look like barbers, cooks, clowns, magicians and maids. Then there were the jumping jacks – pulling strings made them dance or act. Puppets, such as Pinocchio were a take-off from the first jumping jacks and required someone to pull the proper strings to create the desired effect of talking, singing, dancing, etc. This was later combined with ventriloquism, such as Edgar Bergen and his wooden puppet, Charlie McCarthy.
Many of the first dolls were fashion dolls, portraying the latest fashions. France specialized in fashion dolls to show the latest Paris styles. Costume dolls were popular, each country having a doll that showed the native dress of that region. These dolls are still popular today and many collectors and fine collections are to be found throughout the country. Witch doctors used a type of doll in their ceremonies for healing; these varied among the tribes, but all were closely guarded by the witch doctor and his helpers as they were thought to have special powers.
Generations ago, Native Americans made dolls for their children, often out of animal skins sewn together and stuff with moss, animal hair or dried grass. Other dolls have been made from almost every material available in nature, such as pine cones, acorns, cornhusks, apples, grass and wood. Colonial dolls were usually made of wood, whittled to look like their owners and dressed in the style of the day. In Sweden dolls were sometimes made of birch bark; in Hungary the dolls were of wood with oat seeds for eyes and a grain of corn for the nose. In England years ago dolls were baked from bread dough. Eskimos made dolls from animal skins and also carved dolls from walrus tusks. Dolls can be made from egg shells, cookie dough, roots, spools, bark, clay and nylon stockings.
Rag dolls were popular in the early 19th Century; they usually had embroidered or painted faces. Raggedy Ann and Andy were recent rag dolls that were extremely popular. And let’s not forget the paper dolls, one of the most popular dolls of all times. They came in books and were cut out (later, punched out) complete with an extensive wardrobe. I recall many hours I spent with paper dolls, giving them names and even cutting a model from the Sears or Wards catalog and then finding clothes that would fit her. Sometimes this was quite a task, as the pose of the doll limited the clothes that would fit her or him. Most dolls were female, but many baby dolls were little boys. And don’t forget Barbie’s friend Ken!
The doll believed to be the oldest in America was Letitia Penn, brought here by William Penn for his daughter. Two other “first” dolls were Mehetable Hodges and Bangwell Putt, a rag doll. The early dolls always had tiny feet and hands and many had beautiful China heads, although there were wax heads, bisque and earthenware, too. Some had jointed necks, arms and legs and some had solid bodies with no joints. Others had eyes that opened and closed and some talked and said “mama;” some would drink from their tiny bottle and then “wet;” some walked, some had real curls that could be set and made into ringlets. Remember the Shirley Temple doll, the Dy-Dee baby, Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Cabbage Patch dolls.
The doll market continues to flourish as there will always be children who enjoy them. Doll houses, complete with furniture, doll clothes for all sizes and shapes, accessories such as high chairs, strollers, beds and even Barbie has her own sports car. There are catalogs for doll makers, parts for dolls, patterns to make dolls and clothes and even nationwide organizations for doll collectors. No matter how old or young, there’s likely a type of doll to hold your interest.