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Updated on November 30, 2016
Photo by Daniela Corno
Photo by Daniela Corno

The earliest dolls were almost certainly endowed with religious significance. The oldest such figurines, dating from the Aurignacian period (about 40,000 B.C.) and found from France to the southern USSR, are female in form. Their exaggerated sexual characteristics suggest that they were fertility figures supposed to work through sympathetic magic. They are known as "Yenuses"; the most famous is the Venus of Wyillendorf, found at Willendorf, Germany.

Most ancient dolls have been recovered from graves. Almost none are prehistoric; however, dolls dating from about 3000 B.C. have been found at Mohenjo-Daro, on the Indus River in what is now West Pakistan. These are simple clay figurines; other ancient dolls durable enough to have survived are made of bone, wood, stone, ivory, and other hard substances. There is evidence that ancient dolls were also made of perishable substances, but no such doll is extant.

In many societies dolls were entombed in order to provide the dead with servants and concubines in the afterworld; this was the case, for instance, in Egypt. Some Egyptian tomb figurines were made of baked clay; others, the so-called "paddle dolls," were made of simple flat pieces of wood and lacked feet. In China the ancient custom of sacrificing members of the dead man's household and interring them with the corpse was abandoned when dolls were substituted for the human victims.

In such societies, as well as in those where dolls served as religious icons, the figurines had great ceremonial significance, and children were sometimes enjoined against even touching them. On the other hand, the kachina dolls of the Hopi Indians, although religious in nature, were given to children as playthings. In any case, the presence of dolls in children's graves in Egypt suggests their use as toys, and in ancient Greece and Rome some dolls were certainly toys, although others were still used as religious offerings.

Later Dolls

Little is known about the dolls of the Middle Ages, although a few small figures, including representations of knights, survive. Perhaps the most important development of the Middle Ages was the creche, with figures of the Holy Family and others. These attained their most elaborate development in Catholic Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries; during the same time there was a great vogue for dollhouses in Protestant Europe, where creches had been abandoned because of the Reformation strictures against religious images.

Toward the end of the 14th century, dolls of the type known as "fashion babies" appeared in France—and, by 1391, in England. These were figures usually made of pasteboard and dressed in fashionable costumes, their purpose being to acquaint the wealthy with the current styles. In the early 1500's dollmaking was begun at Nuremberg, Germany, which remained for centuries the preeminent source of dolls. German craftsmen of the period sometimes made doll production a lifework—carving dolls (often with jointed limbs) from wood, painting them beautifully, and dressing them to resemble everything from peasant women to ladies of fashion. Other dolls were made of clay, ivory, stone, leather, terra-cotta, cloth, bone, and so on.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, dolls became so elaborate that many were presented at court; some were so costly that, in time of war, they were given safe transport to some peaceful refuge. Fashion dolls were also popu-ir during this period, and children of the lower social classes had simpler dolls, usually made of cloth or leather and stuffed with some soft material.

North American dolls of the 18th century were imported from Europe, were modeled on European dolls, or were generally very simple in design. Most were made of perishable materials, and very few survive. Toward the end of the century, dolls modeled on celebrities (such as George Washington) began to appear. But the industry did not develop significantly in the United States until many decades later.

The 19th Century

This was the period of greatest advance in dollmaking. Papier-mache, which had been known in the Orient for centuries, was developed in Germany about 1810 and began to be used for dolls' heads. This innovation was followed about 1820 by the large-scale introduction for this purpose of bisque and china. All these techniques were developed primarily in Germany, and for many years the china factories at Meissen, Germany, supplied china heads and bodies for the entire world. In England the Montanari family in the 1840's perfected the use of wax for dolls' heads. Three techniques were developed: the wax might be poured directly into a mold of the head; it might be applied as the coating of a plaster core; or it might simply provide a finish for a head of papier-mache.

Dolls of this period also reflected various mechanical improvements. Wigs, generally made of human hair, were widely used. Eyes designed to be closed by wires appeared about 1810, and the first doll that could say "Mama" and Papa" was invented in 1830. Dolls with more elaborate speech or with music boxes were developed throughout the century.

The United States began producing dolls on a large scale in the second half of the century. The first American doll patent was granted to Ludwig Greiner in 1858 for a method of making papier-mache heads. Greiner's dolls were much indebted to European designs of the time. A more distinctively American product was the rag doll, such as those manufactured by Izannah Walker during the latter half of the century; these were followed in the 1890's by the rag dolls designed by Mrs. Martha Chase. Along with the wooden "Springfield" dolls, made in Vermont, these rag dolls were distinguished by fresh and original designs that in essence were inspired adaptations to the limitations imposed by the unsophisticated materials used.

The latter half of the century also saw the development of additional materials; various compositions were employed, rubber dolls were made by Charles Goodyear, and celluloid dolls were introduced in 1881. These last were very popular, but their inflammability finally led to general prohibition of their production. They are still produced, however, in some countries.

The new materials were accompanied by further mechanical improvements. The Montan-aris began the first large-scale commercial production of "baby dolls." A walking doll was introduced in 1862, although such dolls were not perfected until the 1950's. A jointed doll was patented in 1873, and it quickly led to the development of more complex and realistic jointed dolls. Among these were the elegant bisque dolls produced by the Jumeau family in France, which were highly popular as fashion dolls throughout the second half of the century. In 1889, Thomas A. Edison invented a doll that used a miniature phonograph to sing nursery songs. In 1890 a drinking doll was introduced, and about the same time counterweighted "sleeping eyes" were developed.

The 20th Century

A popular new doll in the first decade of the century was the "Billikin," which was based on Japanese dolls by E. I. Horsman, an outstanding figure in the American doll industry, in 1908. It was followed in the next year by Rose O'Neill's "Kewpie," a small chubby doll with a topknot, which is perhaps the most popular doll of all time. Various other dolls were introduced about the same time or a few years later. Some were printed on sheets of cloth and designed to be cut out, sewn together, and stuffed at home. Other dolls, as in the past, were modeled on real or fictional celebrities. Among those so honored between 1900 and 1940 were Raggedy Ann and Andy, the "Pooh" characters, the Dionne quintuplets, Eloise, and Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth. By far the most successful of all such dolls was the one modeled on Shirley Temple in 1934.

Meanwhile there were other innovations in the world of dolls. Kathe Kruse, a German designer, introduced in the 1920's a line of dolls designed to resemble children very closely. Realism was also increasing constantly with various mechanical ingenuities: the addition of plastic hair in 1952 was a big step forward.

A revolutionary new doll was introduced in 1959; this was the "Barbie" doll, designed to resemble a teen-age girl fashion model and equipped over the years with scores of costumes. Regarded skeptically at first because it departed from the "baby doll" pattern that had controlled the market, it eventually proved itself immensely popular, bringing sales of more than $500 million within a decade. In the 1960's the trend toward increased realism continued. One of its results was the introduction of Negro dolls, both baby and adolescent. Another and far more controversial development was the French doll "Baby Brother," which was marketed in 1966 and entered the United States in 1967. This doll was made to resemble a male child of four months—complete with genitals.

Attractions of Dolls

There seem to be three ways in which dolls are valued. Depending on what it resembles, a doll may seem to the little girl who plays with it to be a baby, a child, or an older person. The baby doll presumably appeals to the girl's developing sense of her own nature as a female, and by "mothering" the doll she strengthens her role identity. Some dolls, on the other hand, can be bought in the same size and "age" as the child, up to maxima usually of about 40 inches and 6 years of age; these dolls can actually wear the same clothes the little girl herself wears. Their appeal therefore seems to lie in a sort of companionship they provide in the girl's imagination. Finally, the dolls that represent older people presumably provide a focus for the child's ego ideal, appealing to his or her sense of a desired future identity. In Japan, for instance, where dolls have been very important for millennia, both boys and girls celebrate annual festivals during which they are presented with dolls that represent men and women outstanding in Japanese history; during the festivals manly and womanly virtues are praised for the children's edification.

The chief role of dolls in general seems to fluctuate from one period to another. The dolls most popular at the middle of the 19th century were lady dolls with extensive wardrobes; their appeal presumably lay in the child's identification with the lady of fashion represented by the doll. Toward the turn of the century the most popular kind of doll became the baby doll, its role being to emphasize and appeal to the girl's maternal values. Now, with the wide appeal of various adolescent dolls with large wardrobes, the pendulum appears to have swung back. However, the contrast can easily be exaggerated; in all cases the little girl adopts an imaginary role, in relationship to the doll, that presumably gratifies in some way her sense of herself.

Doll Manufacture

For many centuries Germany was the world center of doll production, and it ceased to be only in the early 20th century. The cessation during World War I of doll importation from Germany and Japan led the United States finally to develop its own industry to the full, and its production by the late 1960's totaled well over $100 million worth per year. A few million dollars' worth of dolls are exported yearly, and a much larger number are imported; the majority of these come from Japan, most of the rest from various European countries.

Doll Collecting

Collecting dolls is a very popular hobby. Collections often begin with the collector's own childhood toys. Later the collector may decide to specialize, for example, by collecting dolls in national costumes or dolls produced in a specific period or by a specific firm. It is not clear when adults began to collect dolls, but probably the most famous of all doll fanciers was Queen Victoria, whose collection included more than 100 dolls.

In the United States there are more than 10,000 private and public collections. Some of the most outstanding public collections are those of the Museum of the City of New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), and the Wenham Museum (in Wenham, Mass.). Among the preeminent collections abroad are the State Museum of Toys in Zagorsk, USSR; the Germanisches Museum in Nuremberg, Germany; the Carnavalet Musee in Paris; and several important collections in England, including those at the London Museum and at the Bethnal Green Museum, both in London, and that at the Castle Museum in York.


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    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander 8 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      Well researched and written. Thanks for sharing.