They’re a dust bunny’s best friend and every spider’s favorite home. They were once a little girl’s cherished plaything. They might have even belonged to your grandmother and before that, your great-great grandmother and so-on and so-forth. And then again you might find yourself turning them up in the most odd places: a thrift shop, yard sale, flea market, etc. And the compulsion to buy that old doll can be overwhelming.
What type of dolls were there way back in the Edwardian and Victorian eras? Many! And before the 1880’s came about with doll pressing molds, a lot of antique dolls were hand made and designed. And its a miracle most antique dolls have managed to survive many a rough childhood, elements, time and still have all tiny porcelain hands and feet attached, glass eyes in tact, two front teeth (if the doll has an open mouth), and their original clothes and accessories.
Composition dolls didn’t fair all that great over the years, but some remarkably appear as though they are still being produced today in the condition they survive in. Composition is a mixture of wood pulp, saw dust, oils and plaster pressed. Other times doll heads can be comprised of paper mache, oil and paper pulp, pressed into molds, creating a strong compound, then painted. Some old antique dolls can have straw-stuffed bodies, scraps and snippets of fabric and ancient stuffing swiped from a doll maker’s wood floor. The antique doll body can be made from kid leather, have bisque jointed arms and legs and torso, or a cloth body.
Some antique dolls I turned up were in sorry states of neglect, dirt and donned filthy doll clothes. I did my best to restore what I could on them. Yeah, I know– I potentially just ruined that… (insert possibly rare antique doll of your choice here) and now its worth diddly squat! I don’t get my undies in a bunch over it.
I have an unglazed bisque head (no makers mark), cloth body doll no taller than 7”. And whoever owned it before me hand made her own little black dress. I almost mistook this rough bisque head doll to be a “frozen Charlotte” as some of those dolls made in Germany came in various sizes. I’ve since learned that these frozen Charlotte dolls are a lot smaller and were companions to their bigger porcelain glazed counterparts: China head dolls. I do own several China head dolls the earliest dates back to the time of the Civil War (1860s, I believe).
I bought a blonde hair China head doll from eBay years ago and it arrived in an empty Tide laundry soap box with no padding. The doll smelled clean like fresh laundry. I had no negatives to give the seller, all was great. The doll whose pet name is “Helen” was probably made somewhere between 1905 or 1919. Maybe earlier or later since not all China heads were stamped. Nearly all dolls I have come across were made in Germany during the turn of the last Twentieth century.
I do have my cut off date on doll collecting nowadays. I collect nothing later than the Twenties and there are certain types of dolls I won’t add to my collection ever. The dolls I avoid are the ones made of celluloid. Celluloid is highly combustible and comprised of camphor and nitrate. It was largely used to produce dresser sets, combs, hair receivers, hair brushes, mirrors, picture frames, baby rattles, button hooks, hair pins, salve containers, perfume holders, etc. The U.S. outlawed celluloid products by 1944-45 due to its volatile nature. Celluloid was also used to make film strips which accounts for most silent films being lost due to studio vault fires as well over the years.
When I was a little girl I was a faithful reader of Doll World magazine back in the late 80s and as soon as a new issue hit the newsstands, I would devour as many articles as I could while my mom did the shopping. That’s how I gleaned a lot of insight to the vast world of antique dolls and its where I first heard about “bisque”. It was in that doll collector’s magazine I delved into a fascinating world that girls typically my age back then wouldn’t have been interested in.
When I was ten-years-old I was on the search to locate a Thumbelina doll, Suzy Smart and an original Chatty Cathy doll from the 50s. I had no interest finding a Chatty Brother or Tiny Chatty Baby or the latter Chatty Cathy dolls made in the 60s. I was hoping against impossible odds of finding one of those three dolls by the late 1980s. The only doll out of the three I did manage to find was an authentic Chatty Cathy doll from the Fifties with a severe case of ‘doll baldness’. It happens when either the doll’s hair falls out naturally from the elements or a child that owned it before decided to play barbershop and gave it a haircut.
My first Chatty Cathy doll never made it to adulthood, sad to say and only one picture remains of my first ‘antique’ doll. The plastic disintegrated and that was another thing I was quick to learn about when I was ten. Plastic decomposes, becomes very brittle, turns yellow and discolored and eventually breaks. First went Chatty’s fingers one-by-one, then her teeth fell out and eventually her eyes fell inside their sockets. I tried in vain to repair every problem that cropped up but my tireless efforts proved unsuccessful. The voice box mechanism inside this particular Chatty Cathy no longer worked. It was a learning experience owning a doll that would have been from my mom’s time.
As I grew up, I forgot about dolls for quite some time and never bought an issue of Doll World magazine (doh!). In fact, I didn’t own any dolls from my time (the 80s). I did have an original Cabbage Patch doll as a little girl and for some reason I always hated those dolls with a passion, yet owned one. Therefore, it made me a pint-sized hypocrite. 🙂
The years flew by. Ebay was still in it’s infancy period (before the days of uploading pics) and I saw a description of a doll “lot”. They weren’t antique dolls just a mixed lot of porcelain dolls with no maker’s marks or anything. I took a chance, placed my bid and won them. They arrived fine. One doll was missing a hand, broken leg and I loved it just the same. I knew these dolls were “as-is” before I bid on them. I kept those dolls until I moved and all that changed.
Everything becomes a compromise when you live with somebody. And since the dolls seriously gave my [then] new boyfriend the creeps, I improperly shoved them in a storage container and left them out in the garage. Years went by. I forgot I had those dolls and the elements took their toll. And when everything went to heck in a hand basket I moved back home after nine years leaving those dolls in the dust.
The only precious dolls I do cherish are the ones that belonged to my great grandma and my dad’s mother. My China head dolls came from local antique stores. Some are low brow and high brow versions. I found an adorable “Hair Loop” doll from 1927. Then I found a crier baby with a paper mache head, glass eyes and it suffers from an acute case of doll hair loss. I believe the doll’s hair is real human hair or mohair. It’s blonde, but falls out very easily so I outfitted that doll with an antique bonnet.
As time allowed, I procured a collection of Christening gowns, lawn cotton bonnets, antique booties… you see where I’m going with this… well, I didn’t want my antique crier dolls donning modern doll clothes and I’m not quite the seamstress to make period correct doll clothes, either. So, I scrounged and found some antique baby clothes and booties which are probably homemade crocheted ‘vintage’ and those will do.
Since my cat would love to hop in the crib and get her hair all over my dolls, I keep them in my bedroom. Surprisingly, my antique dolls do give a lot of people the creeps. They’re so old and thankful not any of them are haunted.
Then my sister went to New York and when she returned presented me with a modern new porcelain doll. I keep that in the crib. I knew it would be something my cat would love to knock off a shelf and break. Cats are good for getting on top of things you don’t want them on.
And I have an old “Minerva” doll with oven mit-sized hands, original lace up boots, cloth body, black antique stockings and a gray pin-stripe jumper. Actually, this metal head doll was the least desirable to doll collectors at one time and now its seems Minerva might have a shot at being a collector’s doll. What made this metal head doll so unpopular was the lead paint used cracks and flakes off. These particular metal head dolls were designed for their durability. My Minerva doll has a lot of paint loss on the head and face. These were custom made-to-order dolls back in the day. I believe these were made somewhere between 1900-1930s. Since there have been several doll makers to make these metal head dolls, eras will vary. I did extensive and exhaustive research before I bought my Minerva doll and am still at a loss as to which doll maker produced it since its missing its paint on the back of it’s shoulder plate area.
And then there’s the half-doll bed light (that hooks over a head board). I have mine over the crib. It’s origin and era remains unknown. What I do know is that my great grandmother had one like it (not identical) and she had it going back to 1928 or thereabouts when she would have been fifteen. I believe 20 dolls will suffice unless I find a place with a nice inset china cabinet with doors, then I might consider letting my cat have that nice old baby crib for her bed.
I strongly disagree with a statement someone else made that doll collecting isn’t a hobby for the young. I’ve collected old dolls (some considered antique by today’s standards) as young as ten. Also, I highly disagree that younger doll collectors were born on or after 1980. Although I’ve never met a fellow doll collector yet from my generation I do know they’re out there. I’m living proof of that. 😉