Dolls Delight Grown-ups, Too (Dec, 1950)
When I first looked at the doll on the second page I thought that the basket was actually inside her chest cavity, which at least made the article seem a little grotesque. Alas, it is simply a 10 page article about collecting dolls. Please try to contain your excitement.
Dolls Delight Grown-ups, Too
LUCY CUNNINGHAM Photographs by Jacoby’s Photo Service and I. Cunningham
“Whether you have one doll or a hundred, whether you buy for yourself or for others, no matter how you do it— doll collecting is fun,” says Lucy Cunningham.
It all started on a rainy day several years ago. My sister and I were looking over some old family photographs and came across a worn tintype of a small girl with an enormous china doll clasped in her arms.
“Why, that’s Mama when she was two years old!” exclaimed my sister.
“That doll would be at least seventy years old by now. I wonder what ever became of it.”
It is amusing to observe that whenever a few people gather around a showing of antique dolls someone is sure to say, “I wonder what ever became of Mother’s doll”; or perhaps it was Aunt Sallie’s doll, or one of her most beloved treasures from some Christmas tree of long ago.
The appeal of antique dolls is almost universal. Not only are these quaint figures reminiscent of our childhood but many of them have romantic and historic associations. Students of costume find it worthwhile to examine and study the attire of old dolls in museums, especially if these dolls still wear their original clothing. To some collectors, old dolls have an irresistible charm simply because they are quaint, or decorative, or unusual. To me, they represent all this and more.
When I am working on an old doll, I envision a little girl who loved it; who carried it around all day and cuddled it at night in a great four-poster, or maybe a trundle bed. I think of the grandmother who firmly believed that a dolly should be correctly clothed, and so made infinite tucks in many petticoats, crocheted fine lace for long split-drawers, and fashioned velvet shoes for the clumsy stuffed feet. At times, I fancy I see the arrival of a frigate from abroad, bringing French fashion dolls to our cities in the “early days.” I see the ladies in fine gowns with bustles and ruffles and frills, exclaiming over the new styles. Constantly as I work I am aware of the craftsmanship of the dollmakers who labored in their humble homes or in foreign factories, little knowing that their handiwork would be so greatly treasured after these many years have gone.
But back to the tintype that we found among our photographs. From the minute I saw it I was determined to have a china doll myself. So I urged my sister, who was leaving on vacation, to try to find a china doll or head while she was away. At that time I was totally ignorant of the fact that doll collecting is one of the nation’s foremost hobbies and there are doll collectors clubs all over the country. We did not even know where to look for a china doll but decided that an antique shop would be a good place to begin the search, and we were right in that.
Within a week after my sister left she wrote me at my Oklahoma City home that she had found three heads of slick glazed china in an antique shop in Denver, Colorado. There were two with black hair, priced at $4 and $6, and a blond for $12. The dealer had explained that blonds were ten times as scarce as the ones with black hair and consequently higher in price. Should she get them?
I suffered somewhat over the decision but finally, with great pricking of my financial conscience, I wrote her to get all three. Then I immediately invested in two of the best doll books available at that time, “More About Dolls,” by Janet Johl, and “Dolls—A Guide for Collectors,” by Clara Fawcett. It seemed only reasonable to learn all I could about my extravagant purchase. Since then there have been several other splendid doll books published, including a small handbook called “Old Dolls,” by Eleanor St. George. These books may be purchased or ordered for you at most book stores.
Did I need those books! Never had I dreamed there were so many kinds of old dolls—china dolls, bisque dolls, papier mache, wax and wood, Celluloid, metal, even rubber and rawhide. It was wonderful but confusing. The more I read the larger the subject seemed.
hen the three heads arrived, I placed them on the table before me with the guide books at hand. I felt very inadequate but to my surprise the things I had read began to mean something to me. The blond head and one with black hair were so much alike they might have been made from the same mold. The hair stood high on the head in a sort of bushy effect with a deep part in the center and low dips over the forehead and around the front. The back hair was short and wavy. Certainly this must be the late type, made in quantity from about 1885 until World War I. The short shoulders and thick neck were also indicative of this period.
The second black-haired doll was rather smooth over the top of the head with a neat white line for center part. Well formed curls were around the sides and back. The forehead was high, the shoulders long and sloping, the neck slender. I recognized this as an older type than the other two, probably about 1860. Then I noticed a red line representing the eyelid and a white dot in the iris of each eye. This one was really good! The late dolls usually do not have the highlights in the eyes and not often the red eyelids.
All three heads had blue eyes, as do nearly all china dolls. A brown-eyed china doll is very rare and a prized collectors’ item.
Then, remembering that we also judge a doll by the quality of the china, I studied them again. These seemed to be the ordinary white china, not the much desired creamy white of some of the older dolls, nor the delicate flesh tint which is called pink luster. The blond had a number of tiny bumps in the glaze and although the coloring was lovely, this roughness detracted from the appearance.
I now came to the conclusion that I had two heads of a fairly common type and one that was extra nice. I had probably paid too much for the blond but that was evened up by the added value of the oldest one. This is often the case in buying old dolls; sometimes we pay more than we should but again we may get a good buy which balances the loss.
A few days later a friend of mine, Hazel Livingston, came over to see what I had bought. After looking at the heads she exclaimed, “Well, I have an old doll that was Grannie’s but it isn’t like these at all. It has a china head, though, with a wig of real hair.”
“Are you sure?”‘ I asked eagerly, because I had read that china heads with wigs were very rare.
Of course we hurried to Hazel’s garage where she rummaged in a packing box and triumphantly produced a doll whose legs dangled limply from the body and dropped off when she took it from the box. I knew this was a papier mache jointed body because I once had one like it. The parts were strung together with elastic. We inspected the head, which was certainly not what collectors called china.
“Hazel, this is bisque,” I said. “It is unglazed china. Here on the back of the head is the mark ‘Made in Germany,’ which indicates that the doll was made after 1891. After that time our government required all imported articles to be marked with the name of the country they came from. Look at the sleeping eyes and the pretty face. Of course this would be German bisque. Let’s see if we can find one like it in the books.”
“Wait, now,” said Hazel. “Here’s another doll with a bisque head, only this has a kid body. The eyes don’t close and the bisque is almost white. Look it up, too.”
“My!” I said. “Do you suppose this is a French bisque? It is much lighter in color than the German bisque and finer too. The eyes are different. I think maybe they are blown glass.”
Hazel jerked the worn clothing off the dolls and said they should have new outfits. I volunteered to try my hand at restringing the jointed one so we could dress it with the others. We studied the doll books but could not decide about the light bisque and were further confused when we read that French bisque was also made in Germany. It sounded silly until we found that this is the term used for the finest grade of very light colored bisque regardless of where it was made.
Next day we called a doll hospital which was listed in the telephone and located a few antique dolls there, so we took the kid-body doll and went over. The owner, Mrs. E. A. McDonald, greeted us pleasantly and offered to show us her collection, but first we presented the doll we had brought.
“This is a fine French fashion doll,” she said. “Collectors are very enthusiastic about them now and they are expensive. This one would probably be worth well over $50. You know these dolls were costumed and sent out from France to show the latest Paris styles to other countries. After the clothing was out of date, the dolls were sometimes given to children to play with. It’s too bad you don’t have the original outfits as that always adds interest and value.”
Hazel and I glanced sheepishly at each other. Thank goodness we had not thrown away the frayed little taffeta gown!
Mrs. McDonald continued with her appraisal of the doll and assured us that the eyes were blown glass of a kind called “paperweight.” Then she directed our attention to a wax fashion doll in the cabinet.
A wax doll! Shades of the past! I had heard of wax dolls all my life but I had never seen one. She had queer pop eyes and a funny rubbed nose. Her blond wig of soft real hair was quite rumpled but she was pretty cute at that. The head was made of molded papier mache which had been painted in bright colors and then dipped in hot wax. The arms and legs were of composition or mache with painted high-top shoes with red tassels.
Mrs. McDonald said that some dolls have molded hair and painted ribbons or even hats all under the wax. An English dollmaker, Madame Montanari, made dolls by pouring the wax directly into the molds without the mache foundation. She did not use wigs for her doll heads but inserted each hair separately into the wax with a hot needle.
We learned that old dolls sometimes have to be rewaxed because extreme heat causes them to melt and severe cold may cause cracking. Then, sad to relate, mice have been known to nibble disrespectfully on the little ladies.
We saw a number of tiny all-bisque dolls such as I used to play with forty years ago. These are nice to collect because they take up so little space and are inexpensive. There are many different kinds and I could see how it would be fun to specialize in these and add one every pay day or so.
Before we left I asked Mrs. McDonaid if she knew where I could buy china arms and legs for the heads, and to my surprise, she had some right there. These were made with high button shoes with heels, a type suitable for the “late” heads. For my oldest head I needed a different kind because shoes with heels were not generally worn before the Civil War. So I was given the name of the Humpty Dumpty Doll Hospital in Redondo Beach, California, and of Ann Decker in Chickasha, Oklahoma, who both make china parts to order.
I thought the prices of the china arms and legs were high but as I was eager to get started on the dolls I bought one set and planned to make kid arms and stuffed feet for the others. Much later, after I had struggled with the making of these arms and legs, I decided that reproduction china parts are worth their cost in time-saving alone.
However, many of the old dolls did have homemade bodies. Quantities of heads were shipped from Germany to the United States and the mamas and aunties supplied the bodies according to their own ideas and abilities. And what ideas! I have found more varied and peculiar shapes in old doll bodies than would be found in the human race. Fat bodies with tiny china heads, long bodies with huge stuffed legs and dainty bisque heads; leather arms with stitched fingers, china arms, bisque arms, cloth arms. Stuffing of sawdust, of cork, of bran; stuffing of straw and hair. Bodies of cloth and of kid, of wood, of papier mache.
Now I was ready to make my bodies. I had several patterns from doll books and a commercial pattern for a Godey’s Lady’s Book doll. After providing myself with heavy unbleached muslin, coarse sewing thread, and a sack of sawdust from the lumberyard I got the surprise of my life.
Nothing turned out right. The first body I made didn’t fit anything so I began changing it. As I produced one weird creature after another, my respect for the mothers of yore increased. They had at least made “usable” bodies. Finally by the trial and error method and frequent reference to a dollar book on anatomy, I worked out a scale of measurements that made a normal looking figure.
1 measure the head from the base straight to the top. With tiny dolls the completed doll should be three and one-half times this measurement. As the height of the head increases this ratio changes slightly. A three-inch head makes a nice eleven-to-twelve-inch doll. Most six-inch heads work up well into twenty-five-inch dolls. These are adult proportions; a child will be shorter as will one of the old heads with long shoulders and small face.
The head and torso measured to the crotch should be one-half the length of the whole doll. The waistline comes about three-fourths of the way down the upper half of the doll. Of course this may vary but it gives a good working guide.
One of the most amusing things we find in old dolls is the length of the arms. Sometimes they are very short and again they hang down to the knees. An arm that reaches to the crotch looks right to me.
When I finally had my dolls completed and dressed according to the old photographs, I began to yearn for more. I searched the nearby antique shops and recklessly bought everything I could find. I even gathered in broken dolls to see if I could fix them. Some of these proved to be fair bargains but it is generally a mistake to buy broken dolls unless you can repair them yourself. Charges at a doll hospital seem high but after I had done some of this kind of work I began to understand it takes infinite time, patience, and skill to make a “lady” of a poor, bedraggled little victim of age and neglect.
After I had exhausted the possibilities in my own neighborhood, I learned about lists. I found there are dealers who send out lists of old dolls for sale so collectors may shop by mail. They advertise in the classified advertising sections of various hobby magazines under the heading “Dolls.”
Buying from lists is especially convenient if you do not live where it is easy to locate old dolls. There is a certain disadvantage in not being able to see your selection before ordering, but any reliable dealer will allow a customer to return a doll which does not meet expectations. The buyer pays the postage or express, and in case of return he pays this too. So, since it does cost something to have a look at the merchandise, it is always best to have a detailed description before placing an order.
I made a number of very satisfactory purchases from lists and found the dealers friendly and helpful. I began to feel that I had learned a great deal about the dolls in the time I had been reading and collecting. But the real turning point at which I passed into the advanced collector class was when I had occasion to visit several large cities where there are fine collections of old dolls. I spent every minute I could in doll museums because I realized that one must actually see the different types in order to know them. I looked up private collections at every opportunity and found that people who love dolls and work with them are the friendliest folk in the world. They enjoy showing their treasures and are glad to help a fellow-collector. I have called on total strangers who have rare dolls that I wanted to see, and I have always been graciously welcomed.
Chance is often a factor in finding good dolls. Some of my nicest pieces have come to me in an unexpected way. One day while I was visiting in New York state, when making a trip to the grocery store with my hostess, my eyes wandered to the window of the shop next door. I could hardly believe what I saw—a gorgeous and distinctive group of very old dolls marked “For Sale.” There was a matronly china lady in pink and black taffeta who could be none other than Mrs. Micawber herself, right out of Dickens. Next to her was a quaint Peddler Doll holding her basket of tiny wares just as securely as she has done for the last ninety years. A large wax fashion doll handsomely gowned in Empress Eugenie style smirked primly in the manner of her time. Upon a small settle sprawled a pair of plump papier mache twins, identical with the exception of their shoes. I knew right off that one pair had been made to button and the other to lace so the young owners could tell their dolls apart.
Before I started home all the little ladies from the window had been lovingly boxed and were on their way to Oklahoma City by express—all but one, a beguiling papier mache in pink cashmere frock and four handmade petticoats. She made her first plane trip with me.
A lucky circumstance brought me another fine doll, a beautiful china head with gold luster ribbons and snood. One day I had several hours between planes in Washington, D. C. Instead of waiting at the air terminal as I usually would have done, I decided to make a quick trip to one of the doll hospitals on the chance of finding something good. I was disappointed in this, but just as I was leaving the shop a young woman came in and asked the owner if she would be interested in buying a china doll. While she described it I could hardly restrain my excitement because this was surely a collector’s prize. To my amazement and delight, the shop owner showed no interest in it so I fairly jumped into the conversation with the result that I acquired this lovely doll myself. Mrs. Arthur Pearson, from whom I bought it, gave me the complete history of the former owner, which enhances the appeal of any doll in a collection.
Gradually, as my friends began to learn that I had access to a supply of old dolls, they would ask me to find something for them. I never could resist a “good buy” anyhow so I soon found myself with dolls I could offer to others. In this way a little selling department worked its way into my hobby and I saw the possibility of making a small profit with which to help finance the cost of my own collection. I followed the example of the dealers from whom I had bought dolls by mail and ventured to send a small advertisement to profitable hobbies magazine and to another hobby magazine.
The ensuing requests for lists kept me pounding the typewriter early and late. The correspondence was terrific. And I loved it! All these friendly people who loved dolls were an inspiration to me. They wrote me what they had in their collections and what they would like to add to them. I began to think it would be as much fun to help others build their collections as to add to my own.
“How can you bear to part with this yourself?” asked one of my correspondents who was pleased with a doll I had sold her. That’s easy to answer. I know how much fun it is to open a new box of dolls and be delighted with the contents. I enjoy passing this experience on to someone else. I never send a doll-child out for adoption that I do not eagerly await word of its arrival, hoping that it will exceed the expectations of the new owner.
Before I sent out my second list I spent much time studying the doll books and comparing countless lists and prices, until I felt familiar with all the dolls I was handling with dealer methods. I made my descriptions as accurate as I could and pared prices to the minimum. The response to this list was very encouraging and I found myself with customers who were quite pleased with what they had bought and who asked for more.
Now I needed a reasonably constant source from which to replenish my stock. I live in an area where old dolls are scarce and this presented a real problem. I certainly could not expect to make anything by trying to resell dolls from lists which were available to everyone. Once in a while I had dolls brought to me by people who heard that I was in the market for them. An advertisement in a hobby magazine produced a few more. But I needed dolls in quantity at a price that would allow a small profit in reselling.
Luckily I had the good fortune to make another trip east at this time and there in antique shops I met several dealers who frequently find dolls with other merchandise which they buy at auctions and in sales of estates. We discussed my needs and worked out an arrangement by which they send me boxes of dolls at intervals. Naturally the price on dolls bought this way is less than when they are bought separately. This serves a double purpose: 1 get dolls for my own collection at a reasonable cost and also have some to sell.
Sometimes collections are sold as a whole and this may present an opportunity to obtain rare dolls that are not otherwise available. Many advanced collectors who can afford it will buy an entire group in order to get one doll that will round out a private collection. Then they sell the ones they do not wish to keep.
Collections for sale are advertised in the usual channels, a classified or a display advertisement in the hobby magazines. Or perhaps the owner will make no public announcement but will write to dealers and collectors with whom she is acquainted and tell them her collection is for sale. However, it must be remembered that even a small collection will involve considerable expenditure and as the money may be tied up for some time this method of purchase is not practical for the casual hobbyist.
There are so many factors involved in the buying and selling of old dolls that it is most difficult to arrive at a per cent of profit. In some hobbies one can estimate the cost of materials and value of time, subtract it from the selling price and say, “This is what I have earned,” but the doll hobby is not one of those. Each lot of dolls, even each doll you buy, presents a separate situation. The prices vary amazingly in different parts of the country, as well as on various lists sent out from the same area.
In selling by mail the cost of advertising, stationery, postage and lists must be included in expenditures. I no longer type my lists but have them mimeographed at a commercial letter house. They cost about 10 cents each for a four-page list with envelopes extra.
The value of time is the mystery element to most hobbyists. Some of us try to figure what it is worth but others are so engrossed in the fun we have that we consider it recreation. With great effort I can record the actual time I spend on a definite piece of work but I don’t try to figure the hours consumed in looking for dolls, in correspondence, in making descriptive lists, and in packing and mailing orders. That’s all part of the game and I don’t want to spoil my fun by making it too involved.
There are many collectors who are eager to buy good dolls at fair prices. Any person who really knows old dolls and has access to true collector items, with careful buying should be able to make a nice profit in handling them. The amount of money he invests and the time which he is willing to give to the work will determine how much he can make. If he is serious about the profit angle, good business methods are absolutely necessary, guesswork won’t do.
A real interest in the customers and their needs is an important part of the over-all setup. Customers who start out with many questions and tiny purchases may eventually be ordering the finest and most expensive items. The enthusiasm of beginners is delightful.
Often someone asks, “How can I start collecting? I don’t have any dolls now but I’d like to get some.”
The way to start collecting is to buy a doll—the kind you get doesn’t matter so much right now, just so it really appeals to you. Let it be inexpensive so you won’t feel guilty about spending so much; you will enjoy it more that way. Find it in an antique shop or a doll hospital, or buy a hobby magazine at the newsstand and send for several lists from which to choose.
As soon as you have your first doll you will rush out to buy a good doll book so you can look up your treasure and learn more about it. A book I have already mentioned, “Dolls—A Guide For Collectors,” by Clara Fawcett, is an excellent all-around help in classifying dolls. If your local book store does not have it, you may order direct from Lindquist Publishing Co., New York 19; price $3.50. In this volume you will read about other types that interest you and from then on you’re off to the chase!
You can get small china dolls from $4 up, or little all-bisque cuties from $3 to about $6. An eighteen-inch china head doll of good quality may cost anywhere from $14 to over $30 depending on the kind of doll and the clothing. Jointed bisques begin at about $10 for the small ones, to any price you want to pay for the finer ones. Wax dolls come at all prices, most of them above $15. There are interesting dolls at less than $10 and it pays to look around a bit and not invest too much money until you decide upon the kind of dolls that you like best.
There is a tendency among beginners to buy in a more or less haphazard fashion but as the accumulation grows, a plan must be adopted to prevent it from becoming unwieldy. Some collectors limit themselves to only one kind of doll, others demand dolls of a given height so they will fit the shelf for which they are intended. An attractive collection can consist of all kinds of baby dolls, or a colorful group of dolls in their original clothing.
A lthough i never would be satisfied to limit my own collection to one particular type of doll, well do I know that when too many dolls of different kinds and sizes are crowded into a small space the appearance is cluttered and confusing. It is possible to make the selections suit the housing situation as well as the preference of the collector.
Now, in my case I want to build the house to suit the doll situation. Ever since I acquired the collection in New York I have dreamed of a museum in Oklahoma City where all kinds of old dolls will be displayed to advantage and everyone interested will have an opportunity to enjoy them. When I first discussed this idea with other collectors and friends, they showed such interest that I began to direct my buying toward that objective. Although it may take some time to obtain the housing which I consider adequate, the plans are going forward, and meanwhile I show my treasures in the space that is available to them—my large living room.
It was a happy day when I received the first gift for the proposed museum. Here was a real expression of confidence in the outcome of my undertaking An acquaintance delivered into my keeping a family doll which she had cherished for many years. She bypassed her grandchildren in order to place her keepsake where it will be secure and appreciated by many others. Certainly there must be a place of honor for this doll.
Working with old dolls is a wonderful, enriching experience. There’s no other hobby quite like it. Whether you have one doll or a hundred, whether you buy for yourself or for others, no matter how you do it—doll collecting is fun.