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Jig Dolls - Traditional and Fun Folk Art

Updated on January 12, 2017
Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis is a very crafty lady. She makes dolls, doll clothes, moccasins, dreamcatchers, and loves to bead in Native American style.

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.

Appalachian Regions

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

Toy Crafters

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

Baby and teddy bear.
Baby and teddy bear. | Source

Primitive 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.

Percussion instrument

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

Origins

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

but ....

Limber Jack and Limber Jill

Danced all night on Timber Hill....


© 2013 Phyllis Doyle Burns

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    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hello Roger. I love the jig dolls - they each develop their own personalities when they dance. Thanks for your visit and comment. It is nice to meet the creator of such fine jig dolls.

    • profile image

      Roger Butler 3 years ago

      Hi,my name is Roger Butler,I perform as a One-Man-Band under the name of Chucklefoot.I use Jigdolls in my act. The video you have on here "Val Knight Jig Dolls"shows two dolls I made for Val back in the late 1980s.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      LCD, what a wonderful Uncle to have. It is good to know that those jig dolls he made are still around. Thanks for sharing that. Thank you also for the visit and comment. I appreciate it.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thank you, Marcy, for the visit and comment. I appreciate this. The Jig Dolls are a wonderful memory of times gone by. I agree we have lost much in "erms of heritage, imagination and creativity." When I was a kid, with six siblings, my father made all our toys from the simple ones to small rocking chairs, rocking horses, doll beds and even dolls. One of my favorite little toys was a small wooden doll that was about four inches tall, no form except for the head. I was watching Dad make some lawn chairs one day and he picked up a piece of wood, rounded the end and drew a face on it. He gave that to me and I cherished it for years. The living history museums throughout the Appalachian regions are a wonderful thing for family vacation destinations. Whole villages are set up the way it was for the early settlers, exact replicas down to the smallest detail. I would love to visit each one. Thanks for the vote and share, Marcy.

    • LCDWriter profile image

      L C David 3 years ago from Florida

      My great uncle used to make these for the family and we still have them. Such fond memories of this wonderful tradition! Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

      What a charming traditional toy - and I love the historic detail you provided. I think (foggy memory here) that I may have seen one of these in real life - probably not being put to use, but somewhere on display or something. I wish today's culture still encouraged making things from minimal materials. We have lost so much in terms of heritage, imagination and creativity.

      Voted up and shared!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Thanks, Nell. I am glad you like it. Thanks for the votes and sharing, too. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      Hi Phyllis, this was fascinating and brought back so many memories! I had one when I was small, but I didn't know what they were called, voted up and shared! nell

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
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      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      ziyena, thank you so much for your visit, vote and comment, I appreciate it. I am so fascinated with the Appalachian regions and never tire of researching or writing about it. Thanks again, ziyena.

    • ziyena profile image

      ziyena 3 years ago from ... Somewhere Out There ...

      I really enjoyed this Hub ... especially about the Appalachian region of my childhood. You're so correct in that they started next to nothing ... still bare foot in some places today! Well thought out with an interesting vote

      Thanks

      Z

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Janis, thank you for the visit and comment. Yes, it is a wonderful memory. I have so many good memories of Mom and Dad and the way they made our evenings so special. Thanks again.

    • WriterJanis profile image

      Janis 3 years ago from California

      What a wonderful memory of your parents and a jig doll.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Hi Genna. It would be wonderful if I could find that doll my father made. I will have to do some checking on that. I had fun with Ol' Joe's poem, I could almost see the folks up there dancing on the hill. Mom and Dad would laugh so hard at us kids when we would try and dance like the jig doll -- it must have been a pretty bad imitation and quite comical. Thanks for the visit and comment, Genna. Have a great day.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I’ve heard of dancing dolls before, but never knew they were called, “Jig dolls,” or that they originated in Europe. I loved your “Ol’ Joe’s Birthday” poem. I hope you can locate that doll your father made, Phyllis…what a delightful experience to have as a young child. Wonderful hub. :-)

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      You are most welcome, Bill. Thank you for the visit.

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 4 years ago from Hollister, MO

      What fun! Thanks, for the memories, for sure! ;-)

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Ohhh yes -- memory lane and so many things we enjoyed as kids. I love jig dolls, tops, pogo sticks, stilts .... Thanks for stopping by, Sheila.

    • profile image

      sheilamyers 4 years ago

      WOW! This brought back some memories. I had a couple of these when I was little. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      ChitrangadaSharan - Thank you. I am very happy you liked reading about jig dolls. They are easy to make and so much fun to watch. Thank you for the visit and comment -- I really appreciate it.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Jodah - it is always good to hear from you. Jig dolls are so much fun, to make and to dance with. Thank you for the visit and comment, I appreciate it.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 4 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Very nice and interesting hub!

      I had not seen something like this before. Thanks for sharing the details of creating this traditional folk art and yes, your emotional touch makes this hub even more wonderful.

      Thanks and voted up!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 4 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Interesting hub Phyllis. I had never heard of jig dolls before, but have seen them. Thank you for another fun history lesson.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Billy, thanks for your visit and comment. Yep! there was a time when life was simple, huh? I am glad you enjoyed the article. Have a great evening.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      So very cool! I remember these from when I was a little kid....nice touch with the personal story at the end. Very informative and enjoyable article.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image
      Author

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      RTalloni, well thank you so much! I appreciate your visit and comment. This is a very old craft -- far cry from video games. Old toys like this brought the family together. Thanks again.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      It's neat to see this old craft highlighted here. I'll have to keep in mind for the grands… Thanks! :)