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Old Dolls And Their Furniture

( Originally Published 1919 )

Some deserted city stands;

All its children, sweep and prince, Grown to manhood ages since. There I'll conic when I'm a man With a camel caravan;

Light a fire in the gloom Of some dusty dining-room; sec the pictures on the walls, Heroes, fights and festivals; And in a corner find the toys Of the old Egyptian boys.

I think I am somewhat like Stevenson's small, vainglorious traveler. There is a dream I often dream, a little bit sorry, a little bit glad, a confusion of sleeping emotions. I am always wandering along some forsaken town, entering its houses, hunting through its attics, and always I find the put-away playthings of a long time ago. I handle them with delight, these little forgotten cradles and chests, and then I invariably awake with tears in my eyes, wondering where the children are. Sometimes in real life I have fulfilled my dreams, and because collecting, in most of its phases, is such a blessed thing, I am going to let you share my pleasure, and play for a while with the sort of toys that might have amused your grandmother, and her mother, and even further back than that.

Let's begin with the dolls, the humanest, the most sentimentaily enduring of all playthings. There they sit, a sedate group, waiting at the old Witch House in Salem for their little mothers to come back and get them. Perhaps none of them date much earlier than eighteen hundred, though I am inclined to place the one in the middle a little before that time. I think she is an older doll dressed in a some-what, later fashion. Observe the discretion of her pantalettes, the neatness of her fringed cape, both of the larmoyant pre-Victorian period. Next in age comes the one behind her — that dolly so neatly dressed, whose bonnet is tied so trimly under her chin, the most "waiting" looking one of all. At the left is the sort of doll I have always fancied Beth's "Joanna" to be like, and the other two look as if they had been dressed and played with and loved in 1860. And about them all there is something infinitely pathetic, don't you think?

Me in her fresh young arms she bore. see, I am small, Only a doll, But I keep her kiss forevermore. They might all of them be saying that. And where are those little lost mothers now?

I wish I could find for you to see —as I have found the letter — a doll described in 1741 by Helena Pelham. This letter, written to her niece, Penelope,

I quote entirely because it, is one of the most revealing documents that has rewarded my search:

February the 19; 1741.


I must love you childe for your name. You are the preteyest little wrighter I ever knew. I hope to convirce with you by letter as ofen as you have an opportunity, that I may see how finley you improve. you have all your requests granted. See what it is to be a pretty little beggar. a baby a red trunke and a lock and key. and I my little childe have sent you a blue ring and a necklace, and a Pelerin to wair a bought you neck, such a one as your baby has on. I should be mightley pleased to see you at the opening of the trunke, for I am sure you will be in greate Joy. pray let me hear how you like all your things and give my service to your mama. so a Due my little unknown girl I shall be allways your loving Aunt


I cannot help hoping that this little lass of long ago was grateful, and wrote back affectionate letters to that loving aunt so far across the seas. Helena Pelham was always sending Penelope something or other. In an earlier letter she mentions "a cap I drest her up and pink and silver ribbons in it and a pair of silver glove tops and a tippet"; and this brings me back to one of my greatest grievances. It is women who have preserved and urged on civilization. It is they who should have recorded it. I cannot help thinking that, if Mrs. Mather or Mrs. Sewall had written the diaries and letters, instead of their worthy husbands, we might have known a great deal more of the actual life of the times. I find myself constantly hungry for more details, more facts than I discover in reading these old records. Cotton Mather retires to his study and prays for hours with his little daughter Katy for her soul's good; Judge Sewall begs to send a friend a piece of his daughter's wedding-cake with a Latin inscription! His wife would have sent the receipt. Now what I want to find is Mrs. Sewall saying something like this: "Gave Judith today a piece of blew lutestring and of the green figured paddisway (ordered by my honored husband, from Mr. Love of London) that she might make her baby a silk dress-gown. She groweth in diligence daily with her needle." Or, from Mrs. Mather: "Jemima hath neatly finished Curtens and Vallens of yellow watered Camlet for a bed that her brother Samuel hath whittled for her. She desires her loving duty to her dear Grand-mother." They must have played — poor little children — sometimes, even if they did knit their stockings and mittens at four years old. Sammy Mather was constantly being rebuked for idleness by his father who wrote, "I must think of some exquisite and obliging Wayes, to abate Sammy's inordinate Love of Play." I want to know how he idled. His mother would have told me.

But no matter how rigorous the Puritan life was you may be sure that there were many games and some playthings. Mr. Higginson wrote in 1695 to say that, if toys were sent over to this country in small quantities, there would surely be a sale for them; and in 1712, "Boxes of Toys" were listed as part of the cargo brought into Boston by a privateersman. Indeed, it is surprising that so many of these fragile things have lasted, outliving the hands that played with them. The little chest with its "teardrop" handles is proof of this: lovely in itself, it is a piece of doll's furniture that made some little Colonial girl very happy in the early seventeen hundreds. Think of the small hands that patted away lovingly in its tiny drawers their treasures of sprigged muslin and brocade.

From the Witch House comes a most interesting group, but of later pieces. The beds are both Empire, the larger whittled out, probably, by a jack-knife. The tables and secretary are Empire, too, fancy the fortunate dolly who owned all this furniture! — and the bureau suggests the sleigh-front style (1820 to 1830). The upholstered chair with its quaint chintz cover makes me think a little of some of the chairs that Hogarth drew, — could it date back so far, do you think? — and the two in front are of the type. made in the early-Victorian period and called '.'Gothic.",

The miniature sofa may have been made for a little child to sit on, or for her to "play dolls" with. I like to : think that the second conjecture is true, and anyhow I 'm sure she must have done it. To have a tempting sofa "must like Mamma's chaise longue in the drawing-room, and quite the right size for dear Araminta," and then not use it! It's unthinkable. It was probably made in the early eighteen hundreds, an Empire piece as the rope-carving and the beauty of the wood indicate; and now it has been re-polished and re-covered and passes its days as a footstool, after a long, dusty exile in an odds-and-ends shop.

The bureau and stand on the opposite page are early-Victorian, the bed Empire and hand-turned, and the cradle of an even earlier date. Frankly mid-Victorian in type are the sofa and table; the left-hand chair has a decided feeling of Sheraton, and, oddly enough, the other chair is a rather well-imitated copy of the old turned chairs, commonly called "Carver chairs " because they resemble one that Governor Carver brought over in the Mayflower. But the lower group of two chairs and a table is again early-Victorian, the right-hand chair showing a slight Sheraton influence, and, on the whole, is less interesting than the other pieces.

The little bed is capable of holding quite a good-sized dolly, and the cherry bureau are really very attractive. The bedposts are well-proportioned and turned, and the bureau — somehow, a sleigh-front for a doll does n't distress me anywhere near so much as a sleigh-front for myself — is quite appealing. The little bits of china on it I picked up at an auction for five cents each; the tiny pitcher, with its creamy paste and its little sprigs, makes you think of some of the old Queensware. Very few such pieces remain, though undoubtedly they were made quite in proportion to the furniture. A friend of mine has a delightful doll's set of pressed glass, dating back to about 1830 and fine as a magnified snowflake; and I have heard recently of a set of doll's silver in a Georgian pattern.

My last piece is not doll's furniture, speaking in the strictest sense. But it is a chair that so many generations of little girls have sat in, holding their dollies, that I could not resist showing it to you. Its date is, perhaps, the middle of the eighteenth century, and I found it "up t' Etny-way" as we call the hills back of us. We stopped — L and the Littlest Daughter and I — at a farmhouse, to ask for a direction and a drink of water. It was a quaint old hundred-year house, rambling out into sheds and overwhelming barns, as is our North Country fashion. By the gate grew a great thicket of cinnamon-roses, ah, so sweet !

It is raw April with us now; outside a wet wind is blowing, and my candlelight spills itself into pools that lie under my windows — a writer lives ahead of the season, you know; but, as I think back, I can smell those roses still. Iam again in midsummer. A trailing vine had laced itself across the front door — that door is never opened, I know, but for weddings and funerals and we went around to the side porch. The nicest old lady in the world let us into a wide, clean kitchen, a kitchen that had a well in it. Imagine the joy of playing Indians, of being besieged, under such enticing circumstances! She showed us her treasures —and even sold us some of them; she gave us big, red, shiny apples, and, last of all, led us way up into the attic. On the rafters we spied this little chair; so old, and there so long, that she did not, know of its existence, and she was over eighty. When I asked her if I might buy it she said, "My dear, I'd like to give it to you for your little girl "; and now it belongs to the Littlest Daughter, who sits in it in her turn, holding her dolly.

And I have written another beatitude: "Blessed is the true collector for she shall inherit the earth."

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