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A Short History of Dolls
In Ancient Times
What do you know about the history of dolls? They are childhood favourites, and quite often a colourful rag doll was one of our earliest and best loved toys. Humans have been creating images of people and human figurines since prehistoric times. For some reason dolls representing women and girls are much more common than those representing boys or men in all time periods.
In fact, the earliest carvings of the human form were often of very voluptuous females and were thought to represent fertility goddesses like the 25,000 year old Venus of Willendorf. These early carvings were not toys, but religious objects, but by the time of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians there is evidence that dolls were being made especially as play things. Fragments of one made from alabaster with movable arms has been discovered from Babylonian times and painted wooden ones with hair made of clay or strings of beads have been excavated from Egyptian tombs.
They have also been found in the graves of children from ancient Greece and Rome. These ancient dolls were produced from materials such as wood, clay, bone or rags and they tried to make them as lifelike as possible. There were some special dolls from this period that were made from wax or ivory, and as long ago as 600BC they had invented dolls with movable limbs and clothes that could be put on and taken off.
16th & 17th Century
They were generally made of wood in Europe during the 16th and 17th century and had simple peg joints. They tended to resemble a clothes peg and the production of these peg toys centred on the Grodnertal region of Germany. Wooden fashion dolls were produced in England in the 17th century and were made by expert wood carvers and dressed in elaborate costumes.
They were known as ‘Queen Anne’ dolls and were intended to be decorative objects for an adult rather than a children’s toy. A famous example is the ‘Old Pretender’ in the V&A Museum of Childhood in London and very few of these rare toys have survived to this day. Wax ones were introduced in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The maker would model the head in wax or clay and then create a mould from plaster of the head. Melted wax would then be poured into the mould to form the head. Wax was a popular material for making them as it allowed for the moulding of realistic facial features and lifelike skin. The German town of Munich was a centre of production, but many unique wax dolls were also created in England between 1850 and 1930.
Introduction of Porcelain Dolls
They first gained popularity in the early 19th century, as china and bisque dolls were cheaper to produce than wax ones. The term porcelain is used to refer to both china and bisque, china being glazed and bisque being unglazed. The porcelain is made by firing certain types of clay in a kiln at temperatures higher than 2372 degrees Fahrenheit.
Production of china heads began in Denmark, France and Germany in the 1840’s and was replaced with the production of bisque heads in the 1860s. The bisque heads were preferred to the china as it was fired twice and the colour added afterwards, which made the skin on the head look much more realistic and lifelike.
The downside of porcelain dolls was that they were quite fragile and children had to play with them very carefully so that they would not be broken. The firm of Kammer and Reinhardt in Germany started making very realistic bisque dolls in the 1900s and these quickly became popular.
Until the 19th century, most dolls had been depictions of adults or older children, but in the 1850’s the French introduced the baby doll. These French ‘bebe’ dolls were expensive to buy when they were first made and are regarded as collector’s items today. Although dolls made of rag or cloth had been made by mothers for their children for hundreds of years, they were not commercially produced until the 1850s by the Americans and the English.
Production in the United States did not really take off until after the end of the Civil War when manufacturing became centred in New England. The industry in New England manufactured these toys from a variety of materials including papier-mâché, leather, cloth and rubber. In the late 1860’s celluloid was invented in New Jersey and used to make dolls until the 1950s. Factories in America, Germany, Japan and France churned out huge amounts of these cheap celluloid toys, but they eventually fell out of favour because they were so inflammable and their colours tended to fade badly in bright sunlight.
The Introduction of Plastic
Plastic dolls first made their appearance in the 1940’s and proved to be much more durable than those made of other materials. The introduction of vinyl allowed the manufacturers to root hair into the scalp for the first time, rather than having painted hair or a stuck-on wig. So the era of dress up dolls that also had hair that could miraculously grow or get shorter had arrived.
They also started to do more things and you could get ones that walked and talked, ones like Tiny Tears that drank their bottles and wet their nappies and now you can even get ones that can swim. The first talking dolls had been made by Thomas Edison in 1890 and were sold in the Lenox Lyceum in New York for what was then the huge sum of $10 for one dressed in a chemise and £20-$25 for one that was fully clothed.
Unfortunately the Edison Talking Doll was rapidly removed from the markets as only around 500 were ever sold and most of them got returned as they were too delicate to be played with and the youthful owner had to crank a cylinder by hand to hear their fancy new toy recite a very short nursery rhyme.
Barbies and the Rise of the Fashion Doll
The 1960’s saw the introduction of the fashion doll, with Sindy being the most popular British brand of that era. Sindy was quickly overtaken by Barbie who had been created in America by Ruth Handler and was launched in 1959. Barbie was quickly joined by a boyfriend called Ken and other characters also soon joined the Barbie family.
These Barbies and other fashion dolls, which were modelled after adult or teenage women rather than children or infants, were characterised by all the different outfits that you could buy for them, and their very own furniture, cars, ponies, and houses. The age of the complete range of accessories for branded toys has continued and Barbie and Sindy have been joined by the hugely popular Bratz range and Monster High.
These toys have also become very high tech, with the latest offering being Barbie Video Girl. Barbie Video Girl is a working video camera that records video footage as Barbie would see things, which can then be played back. Recent years has also seen the development of merchandise associated with films and television programmes, and you can now buy dolls based on characters from the Disney cartoon movies such as the Little Mermaid,
Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Cabbage Patch Dolls also became immensely popular in the early 1980s, and they had vinyl heads and stuffed fabric bodies. What made them unique was that each one had different facial features and no two were exactly the same. They were even issued with their own birth certificates which listed their name.
Nowadays collectable dolls made from china are still very popular with adults. These collectables are often made in limited numbers per design and can cost a lot of money to buy.
There is also a renewed interest in the skills needed to make your own dolls, ranging from sewing them, to knitting them or even creating your own wax dolls. If you are interested in learning more about their history, the best place to do this and see collections of antique ones is in toy museums, with the V&A Museum of Childhood having one of the very best collections in the United Kingdom.