Jig Dolls - Traditional and Fun Folk Art
Fancy Dancer Jig Doll
Limberjack and Limberjill
One of the oldest and most fun of all traditional folk art is the dancing doll, often called "jig doll'" Other names for these dolls are limberjack or limberjill, busker's puppet, clogger, jigger, paddle doll, or just dancing doll. There are several other names they are called by, depending on who made them and the place of origin.
These dolls are great toys to make for anyone as a Christmas gift, birthday or anytime gift. And they are not hard to make if you have just some simple tools and imagination. The dolls seem to develop their own unique personality as they dance. They are really fun to watch - from babies to grandparents, everyone feels the rhythm and joy of a jig doll. It can create a great family evening as it is a wonderful way to bring the family together and entertain them.
You can make the doll as fancy as you like with paint and fabric, yet the plain doll with no face leaves the imagination of personality up to the observer who watches the doll dance. After just a few seconds of watching the plain doll, its personality begins to stir the imagination of each person watching it do the jig.
When early settlers from the old countries started their new life in the Appalachian regions they had in their memories the traditions of their homelands. That is about all many of them had except the clothes on their back and maybe a few valued family treasures.
They started with next to nothing, built their own log cabins and did the best they could to raise a family and feed them. With children there had to be toys, so parents and grandparents set to work to make them. From teddy bears, rag dolls, carved animals, and many more from the creative minds of the adults. Teddy bears were a child's loving toy to cuddle and best friend.
It was not all hard work, struggling to grow crops and all the other necessary chores. No matter how hard it was for them, the settlers found time for fun.
They used what they had, every scrap of wood, fabric, string, and other materials to make toys for the kids to keep them entertained. One of the finest and most fun toys they made entertained children as well as adults - the wooden dance dolls, just like in the old country, were favorites of everyone.
Plain and Simple Jig Doll
Some of the toy crafters were very creative and others settled for simple basics to make the dolls. Flat pieces of wood, a wooden dowel or flexible metal rod, brads or wire links, is all that is needed for the materials.
A jig saw is used to cut out the pieces that are drawn on flat wood and a drill for a hole in the back of the doll and in the knees, shoulders, and hips. One piece for the head, neck and body is cut out, then two arms, two upper legs and two lower legs are cut out of the wood. Cut edges are sanded smooth with sandpaper.
To construct the doll, the legs and arms are attached with brads. The dowel or flexible metal rod is inserted into the hole in the back of the doll. The doll can be left bare, painted, or dressed in simple clothing from scrap fabric. When the doll is moved or bounced up and down by holding the rod or dowel in back, the legs dance in crazy ways, making the look like it is really into the music.
Everyone had fun watching jig dolls dance.
Babies and Teddy Bears Liked to Watch Jig Dolls
In very early days when many tools were not available, the dolls were carved from wood with a whittling knife. These dolls are great examples of the traditional woodcarving and toy making that many fathers and grandfathers of the past brought to America.
Some of these primitive dolls still exist and have become valuable items for collectors.
The doll can be bounced on wood by a child playing with it, or for more exciting entertainment for all, the doll is set up to dance on a paddle springboard when music is played. The musician can tap one end of the paddle with his foot as he keeps time to the music and the doll makes a rhythmic clacking sound on the wood paddle.
The jig doll becomes like a percussion instrument when accompanied by a banjo or guitar. A looped screw on top of the doll's head can be attached instead of a dowel in the back. Then a string tied in the circle of the screw is attached to the little finger of the banjo or guitar player so the doll dances in time with the music.
The sound of wood on wood (wood doll on wood plank) adds a nice touch to the music. Sometimes one will use a tin pie pan to let the doll dance on, which gives a much different sound, maybe not quite as pleasant, but sand can be added to the pan for a different sound.
Get Your jig on With an Appalachian Jig Doll
The jig doll originated in Europe several hundred years ago. The name "busker's puppet" comes from London and the term for busking, which means performing as minstrels or street performers.
Jig dolls have been popular the world over for centuries and there are many variations in costumes, themes and names. Some dolls are dressed and painted to look like well-known people. Two dolls dressed as a boy and girl make a lively show when dancing together.
Val Knight's Jig Doll workshop at the Bath Folk Festival 2012
Ol' Joe's Birthday
Folks gathered as the sun went down
Upon the hill above the town
To wish ol’ Joe Happy Birthday
People sang, oh, banjo play
Lots of fun and more poteen
Kept them dancing real keen
Till sleep came on, day was done
Ol’ Joe really tied one on
Limber Jack and Limber Jill
Danced all night on Timber Hill....
© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns