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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Kestner Dolls

Author: Helen Bullard and Catherine Callicot

( Article orginally published December 1963 )

The exact time the Kestner family began making dolls is not known. About 1860 Henry Kestner, son of the Kestner then making the doll of that name in Germany, came to the United States, and settled in Nashville, Tennessee. His granddaughter, who now lives there, is certain that the J. D. Kestner firm was well established in doll manufacturing when her grandfather left Germany, but nothing is definitely known of the first Kestner, nor his son, who took over the business. It was his son, Adolf, a gandson of the original Kestner, who inherited the business about 1890 and operated it until the family's interest was sold during the 1920s.

The company was located in the German state of Thuringia, at Waltershausen, during the period when Thuringia was a busy center of doll manufacturing-at one time 25,000 workers were employed in local doll factories.

From the 1890s, Kestner dolls were imported into the United States and Canada by Geo. Borgfeldt & Company of New York City exclusively. Mr. Fred Kolb, now chairman of the board of today's Geo. Borgfeldt Corp., after more than fifty years with the company, is the primary source of information on Kestner dolls in this country.

According to Mr. Kolb, who first visited the factory in the early 1890s, the first Kestner doll imported by the Borgfeldt Company was all bisque. These 1890 dolls are presumed to have been the little girl type with jointed bodies, curly wigs, and fixed, painted eyes. Unlike most of their contemporaries in Germany, the Kestner factory manufactured their own doll heads. Kestner also made kid body dolls, dolls with muslin bodies, and character baby dolls. Kestner manufactured the first Rose O'Neill Kewpie dolls in 1912, in bisque. Kewpies were phenomenally successful and were produced in many sizes.

Another great Kestner success was the Bye-Lo Baby, introduced in 1924. Its popularity won for it the nickname "Million Dollar Baby." The first Bye-Lo Babies, with composition body and turning bisque head, proved expensive to produce and only a few were made. Then Mrs. Grace Story Putnam designed the Bye-Lo Baby which is more familiar today, with flange neck, soft cloth body, and outspread fingers. Mr. Kolb writes, "Regarding Bye-Lo, Borgfeldt controlled this item, and other factories besides Kestner made them." Though the Bye-Lo was imitated, Mrs. Putnam's dolls were all clearly marked.

The Gibson Girl, offered in 1900, was one of Kestner's outstanding dolls and is now considered the most valuable of all.

Kestner made at least one celluloid doll. According to Mr. Kolb, "Mr. Kestner had some models and dies made for a celluloid head which was produced for his exclusive use by the Rheinsche Gummi and Celloloid Fabrich." This doll was made up with celluloid head, hands, and feet, on a kid body, with the J.D.K. mark on the shoulder head, followed by numbers. This was one of the last types of doll manufactured by Kestner.

Two fine descriptions of Kestner dolls appeared as advertisements in mail-order catalogs. The one in Sears, Roebuck & Company's catalog for 1910 read:

"Our `Dainty Dorothy' Brand Made by the Celebrated Kestner of Germany, the Peer of All Doll Makers.

"Kestner, the manufacturer of this doll, is known for the excellence of manufacture, the fine quality features and the general superiority of his dolls. His goods are the standard by which all others are judged. The heads are of absolutely the finest quality bisque with open mouth showing teeth, and moving eyes with natural eyelashes. Fitted with long curly wig, parted on the side and tied with a bow of good quality ribbon. Has papier-mache legs tinted in natural color fitted with good quality removable colored lace stockings and ribbon tied sandals to match. Best quality bisque forearm, riveted elbow, shoulder, hip and knee joints, allowing free movement of arms and legs. We buy these dolls direct from Germany and save at least one-third for you. This doll we guarantee to please for many years. Come in 5 sizes, each carefully packed for shipping.

18 1/2" -- $1.75
28" -- 4.98"

The second advertisement is from Montgomery Ward's 1911 catalog:

"Koestner* Kid Body Doll

"This doll must be seen to be appreciated. The illustration does not begin to do it justice. It is the handsomest doll we could buy and sells at a much higher price retail. You will not be disappointed in this doll, it is well worth the price and with care will last indefinitely. "Koestner's Patent Joint Kid body dolls cannot be shipped by mail. These dolls are made with extra fine quality kid, full formed, stout bodies, half cork stuffed, riveted hip and knee joints, composition arms with ball-jointed shoulder, elbow and wrist, large fine quality bisque head with teeth, moving eyes, eye-lashes and fine sewed wigs, fitted with shoes and stockings. Length 23"- $4.25 28"- 6.60"

* Koestner, Kostner variously appear, but Kestner is the correct spelling.

Kestner dolls before 1891 are extremely difficult to identify and date, but fortunately some have a "K" marked on the head. The marking "Germany" or "Made in Germany," which appeared when 1891 import laws required, seemed to stimulate further identification. The Kestner crown trademark is one Mr. Kolb suggested that the manufacturer have registered in this country, and it was adopted on December 24, 1895. A paragraph in the application to the Trademark office reads: "The class of merchandise to which this trade-mark is appropriated is dolls, and the particular description of goods comprised in such class on which it is used is kid-body, bisquehead dolls." Various head markings are found in the accompanying picture captions.


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