|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
Dolls Of The Past
In the year 1839 a little Massachusetts maid received on her birthday a note and a present from her mother. The short letter is preserved in "The Life, Letters, and Journals of Louisa M. Alcott" and from it we gain a picture of the gift.
"My dear little girl," wrote the mother of the future creator of Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth, "will you accept this doll from me on your seventh birthday? She will be a quiet playmate for my active Louisa for seven years more. Be a kind mama and love her for my sake.
Beach Street, Boston, 1839,
The Alcott children loved their dolls, and Louisa was the leader of many games in which the dolls took an active part. The Journal describes their activities.
"Dolls were an equal source of pleasure. The imaginative children hardly recognized them as manufactured articles, but endowed them with life and feeling. Louisa put her dolls through every experience if life; they were fed, educated, punished, rewarded, nursed, and even hung and buried and then resurrected in her stories. The account of the `Sacrifice of the Dolls' to the exacting `Kitty Mouse' in `Little Men' delights all children by its mixture of earnestness and playfulness."
Almost any type of doll would have stimulated a child who delighted in make-believe of all kinds. Possibly little Louisa May dressed the post of a "low-post" bedstead, as did another child of old New England, or made "petunia babies" from the posies in her mother's garden.
The bent twigs of maple trees, a pillow with a string tied around it, a stick of wood bedecked with a treasured scrap of gay calico may have been her beloved babies. We can only guess. The girls of the Alcott family were no doubt well supplied with a bevy of smug-faced dolls, but the doll worthy of the note from the giver must have been a real "store" doll!
Old rag-dolls were treasured heirlooms of many New England homes. Of all sizes and attired in many kinds of quaint costumes, they had some points in common. Their faces were invariably flat; their hands were stiff and rigid; their toes turned out in a most alarming manner. Sometimes they had black button eyes; frequently their prim features were painted with beet and fruit juices; occasionally eyes, nose and mouth were embroidered. For hair they wore toupees of yarn or hemp or wisps of real hair. Their garments were fullskirted gowns of sprigged muslins or prints and they often wore sunbonnets of the same materials as their dresses. In one New Hampshire family still lives an old rag-doll who for over eighty years has pleased its daughters. True, she has become somewhat the worse for wear, but her blemished features have been renewed by the simple expedient of re-covering her face with a fresh piece of cloth!
In "Child Life in Colonial Days" Alice Morse Earle tells of a shapeless rag-doll, "Bungwell Putt," by name, which is in the collection at Deerfield Memorial Hall. "It was cherished for eighty years by Clarissa Field of Northfield, Mass., who was born blind, and whose halting but trusting rhymes of longing for the clear vision of another world are fastened to the plaything she loved in youth and old age."
Some of these old rag babies led exciting lives and were taken adventuring by their young mothers. In "A New England Girlhood" Lucy Larcom tells of the hill behind her house with its "slanting sides worn smooth by the feet of many childish generations" and "the ledges carpeted with moss. of various patterns."
"These were the winding-ways up our castle towers, with breakfast rooms and boudoirs along the landings, where we set our tables for unexpected guests with broken china, and left our numerous rag-children tucked in asleep under the mullein-blankets or plantain coverlets, while we ascended to the topmost turret to watch for ships coming in from sea."
Mrs. Earle tells us that she has often been asked if the first children coming to the new world had dolls, and she believes that they had objects resembling crude dolls. Dolls were first called puppets, and in England in 1751 they were sent about the continent to show the fashions of dress for ladies. These fashion models first came from the Netherlands and were called "Flanders Babies." At last these quaint figurines found their places in the nurseries of the homes where they had been sent as fashion models. Dolls were also sold at Bartholomew Fair and were called Bartholomew Babies.
To quote Mrs. Earle, "In Poor Robin's Almanack, 1695, is a reference to a `Bartholomew baby trickt up with ribbons and knots'; and they were known at the time of the landing of the Pilgrims. Therefore it is not impossible that some Winslow or Winthrop maid, some little miss of Bradford or Brewster birth, brought across seas a Bartholomew baby and was comforted by it."
Those of us who have vivid imaginations are able to draw pictures of white-capped children learning from beady-eyed Indian girls the art of making cornhusk dolls. During my grandmother's childhood these corn- husk babies were made by New England children, and later Grandmother pleased me by helping me construct them. As she stuffed and tied, she told me of their fashioning by the Indians. A modern cornhusk doll made by the old-time methods by Miss Dorothy Cornell has acquired long skirts and a quaint bonnet quite unlike those worn by Indian dolls.
The first "store" dolls of New England were imported from the Continent and made their long journeys to their homes in slow-moving sailing vessels.
One of the interesting treasures of The Essex Institute at Salem, Massachusetts, shows four of the gawky French dolls made about the year 1812. In the center of this picture is a rag dowager, known as "the footbath doll," which was made in 1785 by Miss E. Kimball and re-dressed in 1865. The character dolls are really New England products, for they were made by Mrs. Cleveland of the witchcraft city. Among the old:ime dolls, the furniture, the tea-sets, Noah's Ark, doll carriages, and various quaint toys owned by The Essex Institute is a Spanish doll dating from about the year 1795 and of the type known at a later date as "wax."
Dolls with heads constructed of "composition" and w~th bodies made of fabrics of kid and stuffed into shape were popular with small girls in the early nineteenth century. Such a doll was loved by my grandmother, Lavina Drew, who was born in Alton, New Hwmpshire, in 1827. The doll's black painted hair is arranged in the fashion of the period, piled high upon bor head in a series of puffs, held in place by a large -Spanish comb; her complexion is delicately tinted, and notwithstanding the passage of time, her cheeks are pink, her mouth a vivid crimson, but her eyes have lost their original blue. Her body, arms and hands are made of cloth, and she has no feet. We might almost assert that her head was purchased in a shop and that her body was of home manufacture. She wears a dress of red and black delaine, and her undergarments are cut from lavender sprigged muslin.
In a collection of old dolls owned by Miss Julia D. S. Snow of Greenfield, Massachusetts, are three with composition heads. One is seven and one-half inches tall. Her head is adorned with hair arranged in curls, her body is of white kid, and her arms and feet are made of wood. She is quite gaily dressed in long white checked-dimity pantalets, a cotton lace dress over a glazed yellow cotton slip, while a pale blue silk sash, ornamented with tassels, is fastened in front with a steel buckle. This doll is a true "New Englander" for she came from Post Mills, Vermont.
A perky miss in Miss Snow's collection is the possessor of a composition head and a body of stuffed, unjointed kid. Not only her hands, arms, and feet but also part of her legs are made of wood. Her hair is arranged in short curls in the back of her neck. Her white cotton pantalets are edged with white lace, and her white cotton petticoat has hand-knitted "edging." The pink tarlatan dress is fashioned with a low neck and short sleeves and has white organdie undersleeves. She is evidently a young lady of fashion, for she wears a black silk apron and a black silk ribbon sash, crossed in front and fastened with an oval steel buckle. When she came to stay with Miss Snow, she reposed in a white cardboard box, bearing this inscription, "In 1899 she will be fifty years old."
Another Vermont doll in the collection is eleven and one-fourth inches high. Her hair is parted in the middle, with side puffs and drawn straight up from the back of the neck and arranged in four puffs on the crown of the head. Her pantalets are of white organdie, trimmed with white silk cord; her petticoat is made of white cotton; but her dress is of cream-colored silk, with low neck and short puffed sleeves, and ornamented with a sash of white silk tied in front.
Two of the wooden dolls loved by children of old New England are shown in the picture of the five sets of "twin" dolls belonging to twin girls who were born in Bariistead, New Hampshire, nearly seventy years ago. "Fanny and Frances," as the dolls are named, have wooden heads, hands and feet, and their dresses, which follow exactly the fashions of the time, are of barred muslin and are made of the pieces of the "twins"' own frocks. In the little box between "Fanny and Frances" are twin dolls of china. Below them are quaint damsels with hickory-nut heads and dressed in black taffeta. In their arms they carry babies with heads made of small white beans. The dolls are arranged upon the bedclothes and the pillow, trimmed with handmade lace, which the Misses Ida and Eda Proctor knit years ago for their beloved "twins." The collection is now owned by Miss Helen J. Berry of Barnstead, New Hampshire.
In Miss Snow's collection is a wooden doll. She is fifteen inches in height. Her wooden body has ball and socket shoulder-joints, and her elbows, thighs, and kneejoints are hinged. The head, hands, and feet of this doll are constructed of iron, painted to get the desired effects. She wears a red sprigged-calico dress, trimmed with bias bands of blue and white striped calico.
An interesting old doll is the property of the New Hampshire Historical Society. He is called "Imitation of George Washington" and was once owned by the Bennett Family. In writing of him, Miss Edith Freeman, librarian of the Society, says, "The gentleman sorods seven inches tall, is dressed in buff and blue, has china feet and legs, cloth body, and painted head rather badly crackled, but, for all that, he is delightful."
The dolls with the china heads were the dearest of aU, I think. So many little girls of the Victorian Period loved them and kissed the paint from their smug china fapes! 'Most little girls loved them, I should say, for am long ago a white-haired woman smiled and assured we that she never loved the "store" doll that her father and mother brought her from Dover, New Hampshire.
"Twas my old rag doll I loved," she said. "That doll from the Dover shop! Pish 1 She had shiny black painted hair, a pert nose and rosy cheeks. Her skirts of muslin were full and lace-trimmed and upon her breast she wore a bright nosegay of posies. But I didn't love her. Perhaps it was because I wasn't allowed to play with her very often, for she lay in state in a drawer of mother's big chest of drawers."
The wax doll was a creature of elegance and fashion. She began to appear upon the market in the late sixties and early seventies, and during the eighties she was extremely popular. She was further enhanced by the fact that she had hair which was not painted, but seemed to grow upon her head and that she could open and shut her eyes. Unfortunately, the wax doll was not durable and had to be guarded carefully lest the wax peel from her face. She might even melt, if placed too near the fire.
One of Miss Snow's dolls has a head and chest of wax. Her hair hangs in flaxen curls, her eyes are of "melting blue" and she can go to sleep. Her glazed cotton body is stuffed with sawdust, and her hands, arms, and feet are of composition. Her thin white cotton dress is cut with a "Polonaise," and she wears a string of red, white and blue beads. Her blue high boots are painted and adorned at the top with painted red border and tassels. She is approximately fifty-eight years old.
The auburn hair of another wax doll is curled, and she is also a sleeping doll. She is attired in a similar manner to the last one described, but her painted boots have black bottoms and brown uppers with white buttons and tassels. She was owned by a woman of about sixty years of age who remembered having the doll exhibited to her in a red pasteboard box on state occasions. Whenever there were children visiting at her home, her mother brought the doll from the parlor cupboard beside the fireplace-but for display only.
To the collector of small "antiques" these quaint creatures beloved by the little girls of long ago are most interesting. Arranged with their miniature chairs, beds, and walnut and painted bureaus, and surrounded by flower-sprigged tea-sets, tiny brass candlesticks, bits of Sandwich glass, nail-studded trunks and paper covered bandboxes, the dolls of old New England make a pleasing addition to a collection of early American antiques.