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Historical Dolls: Sparking Today's Imaginations

Updated on August 20, 2014

Fueling the Imagination with Historical Dolls

Some things don't change: Little girls and historical fiction. Little girls fueling their imagination with dolls. Memory: I am about ten and I am acting out a historical scene with my dolls. I have raided my mother's sewing box for anything that looks faintly historical, vaguely reminiscent of Heidi. I have make shift suspenders and capes. One doll has a suede patch curved around her head bonnet. For a vest, she wears a mysterious tube that has fleece on one side.

Flash forward a few years, and my cousin's daughters are seven and eight, prime age for 'American Girl'. That's what they want, and that's what they talk on and on about. Their parents agonize a bit over the cost, but then they buy Molly, a World War I era doll, and Samantha, a late Victorian/ Edwardian era doll, as Christmas gifts.

Flash forward another two decades, and we still have the American Girl phenomena; we still have classic historical dolls like Anne of Green Gables. They still foster imagination and storytelling. They still contribute to the fleeting wonder of childhood. But sometimes the price tags give us pause. And so we have those same decisions -- to buy a name brand, all decked out with accessories or to buy a more basic doll and outfit her from the sewing bin. This page explores the options.

Historical American Girls

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American Girl Molly at AG Store (Seattle)American Girl Caroline
American Girl Molly at AG Store (Seattle)
American Girl Molly at AG Store (Seattle)
American Girl Caroline
American Girl Caroline

American Girls Minis

The American Girls historical doll series comes in two scales: the class 18 inch and also 6 inch minis. The miniature series includes the dolls that have been retired like Samantha, pictured here. (It appears that she was merely downsized and not actually retired.)

I have a special affinity for minis (which I used to refer to as "little figure dolls" in childhood). They were more conducive to story... at least when it came to playing alone. Part of the charm was that I could have more of them -- some stories demanded quite a few characters! It was also easier to make rooms for them out of boxes and such. I will say, though, that I have been impressed with the creativity of parents and children alike when it comes to creating houses for full-size dolls... and showcasing them on YouTube.

Kirsten Display

American Girl Kirsten Display
American Girl Kirsten Display

Faithful Friends

The Faithful Friends were made by Swiss dollmaker Heidi Ott. They are somewhat reminiscent of American Girl dolls, but, alas, did not have the staying power. They can still be found -- and fortunately they go for less than American Girl. They are not as poseable as American Girl dolls, but they are lovely. There is an African American girl in the circle of friends -- and a couple boys as well.

There are other 18 inch dolls that were not released as part of the Faithful Friends collection. You can see one below... the little girl with the braids.

Storybook Dolls: Acting out Historical Fiction

When I Read, I Dream: Johana Spyri's Heidi

There it is a look I tried to create in childhood: Jo. There are plenty of editions for younger readers, so little girls do like to get in on the action.

I found this little doll recently on Amazon. I like that this doll is a "little figure" -- it makes it easier for an imaginative child to use other dolls as characters in the story.

The other dolls in the series are Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, and Fern from Charlotte's Web. (She doesn't wear long dresses, but ah, yes, she's historical now, too!)

Historical Barbie - (Starring as Aunt Detie?)

There are a number of historical Barbie dolls out there: Victorian, Pioneer, and even Pilgrim. Some date back to the 1990s, but they are available still online. The prices vary a good deal. There is an elaborately decked out Victorian Barbie that is stylish, but the price tag -- $60 -- makes it more of a collector's piece than a play toy. The doll featured below, though, can be bought for significantly less.

It is the historic Barbie that most captured my eye. There's an elegance to this doll, too, and, while I feel sure she's not authentic to the period and setting, she brought to mind the auntie in Heidi. I could imagine her swooping down in her feathered cap and fine city clothing to spirit her niece away. It's what I would have done with her as a child -- well, it's one thing I would have done. Sometimes a costume would spark my imagination and carry me off to story land...

As for the Alm Uncle... well, I am afraid a good likeness would prove more difficult. Still, I can imagine what I would have done as a kid. I didn't actually have a Ken doll, so most male roles were performed by my brother's Bionic Man.

Dress your Barbies like Little Women

Of course it's not necessary to have a doll for each character. A wardrobe of historical doll clothes will let your little girl get the right look. Here are doll patterns -- fashion or girl -- inspired by Little Women. (Little Women was another story I tried to act out repeatedly in childhood, and I was always a bit frustrated at not having everything I needed. Some were out of scale or had short dresses.)

Victorian Barbie

There have been a number of Victorian Barbies. I like the one with the teddy bear, Cedric. For sheer economy, there's the ice skater.

Jewish Historical Dolls

This is a doll that I would have loved as a child. If I had grow up in a different era, I could imagine her being placed in my hands. My father came from a Jewish heritage, though I wasn't raised Jewish. There came a point where my aunt wanted to teach me about my Jewish background.

The Gali Girls represent Jewish girls of today and yesterday. Three have stepped out of history; they come with storybooks. Miriam (pictured here) is the most modern of the three, representing the year 1914. She is a Russian American immigrant. American Girl Rebecca is a Jewish girl representing, I believe, the same year, but Gali Girls are a little cheaper -- the doll, book, and a few accessories are sold together for about $60.

Canadian Girls

There are dolls and accessories available from more than one Canadian company. Maplelea makes a beautiful set of Anne of Green Gables accessories as part of their Avonlea Collections set.

Outfitting 18-inch Dolls: AG and Generic

More Inexpensive Alternatives to The American Girls

So what is there to do if American Girl is too expensive (besides track down Faithful Friends on eBay)? Some parents buy My Generation dolls from Target or seek other cheap alternatives online. The Springfield doll (pictured here) is one alternative. Our Generation is another.

Springfield advertises its doll as a collector's item -- not a plaything -- for ages seven and up. Be sure to read the reviews. Some parents rave about how the doll is difficult to distinguish from a 'real' one; others note that the hair is prone to frizziness. (Ah, now, that's something I remember from childhood -- my walking doll had hair that became a bird's nest early on.)

Springfield 18 Inch Doll, Maria - Packaging May Vary
Springfield 18 Inch Doll, Maria - Packaging May Vary

Springfield makes eighteen inch dolls in a variety of hair colors and ethnicities. They can be outfitted to reflect different historical eras.


Felicity with Homemade Dress

Felicity with Homemade Dress
Felicity with Homemade Dress

1930's Doll Apron

There are a number of videos showing children making their own AG clothes. What I like about this apron is that it's a real period piece. It's intended for Kit, Ruthie, or other depression era dolls.

There's no sewing, but some steps will need adult supervision.

Doll Clothing Patterns

Simplicity, McCalls, and Butterick make more than just people clothes.

Do You Have a History of Doll Play?

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    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 5 years ago from UK

      You mention an Anne of Green Gables doll. I wonder if you managed to track her down. Not just a historical doll but also a famous redhead!

    • profile image

      tealmermaid 5 years ago

      Good to know there's alternatives to the American Girl dolls.

    • kislanyk profile image

      Marika 5 years ago from Cyprus

      These are some lovely historical dolls. What a neat idea!