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Bébé Tout en Bois

In the annals of dollmaking one of the oldest materials used has been wood. From the most rudimentary stick to beautiful works of art this once living medium provides collectors with a multitude of directions in which to head with our collecting journey. One of the interesting by-ways within the wooden category is the type of doll made for the French trade at the turn of the 20th century.

In the latter years of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, a distinct form of doll came out of the forests of Germany and into the shops of Paris. These dolls called Bébé Tout en Bois (all wood child doll) originated in the Sonneberg region of Germany. Germany of course, has a long history of wood carving and many earlier forms of wooden dolls came out of this same region but these new dolls had a decidedly different look than its predecessors. They more closely mimicked the style of the bisque headed child dolls on offer from the 1880’s on into the new century.

This 22.5″ Bébé Tout en Bois features a closed mouth and glass eyes. He has painted hair and retains his original finish. Doll courtesy of Ruby Lane shop  Lovely Faces.

The advantage to using wood for this style of doll undoubtedly lay in the availability of skilled wood workers and the abundance of this raw material. A very pleasing doll could be fashioned at a fraction of the cost of a bisque and composition dolly.  A number of makers offered these dolls including F M Schilling Co. The Schilling dolls were made by home workers and then brought to the factory for painting and assembly. A special finishing process was used on the Schilling dolls to make them washable; this process was used on these wooden dolls as well as dolls of other materials made by Schilling. After the usual painting of the features, the heads were protected with a “secret coating.” This finishing technique which was probably a form of shellac allowed a smooth finish over a base coat of pink-tone paint, similar to what we are accustomed to seeing on most German composition ball jointed doll bodies of the era. The Schilling dolls were marked in English, French, and German with a paper label which bore the company’s Angel logo and “Tout Bois, Holz, All Wood.”

The 20″ doll shown here has lost much of its facial paint and varnish, but it provides a clear illustration of the body type most often used for these dolls. Note the lathe-turned pieces which were finished with hand-carved details. The slightly “cupped” hands are typical for these dolls.
In the book The Jumeau Doll. (Dover Publications, 1980) author Margaret Whitton attributes this type of doll to Jumeau. Examples such as this one which has the typical wooden Bébé Tout en Bois head is on a French composition body which is marked “Jumeau” have been found. It is possible that the SFBJ purchased heads to place on their bodies and sold them under the Jumeau name. Although this is a reasonable hypothesis, additional supporting source information has not yet come to light.

Other Sonneberg area doll makers offered this type of wooden doll as well. The firm of Robert Schneider was founded in1868 as a doll factory. In 1912 they advertised that they had enlarged the factory for the production of wooden dolls. Rudolf Schneider is also listed as having a factory for wooden dolls and in 1914 registered the trademark Bébé Tout en Bois for wooden dolls and doll bodies of wood and paper mache. The finish used on the products of these two factories is often in more worn condition today than those of Schilling.

Differences of finish aside the general characteristics of these Sonneberg wooden dolls are very similar. They are made of the wood of the Linden tree and have hollow socket heads which show signs of having been lathe turned before their features were carved. The top of the crown is open in the style of the dolly-faced bisque dolls of their day for insertion of their glass eyes. These eyes are found both stationary and with the typical weighted sleep mechanism. Painted eye versions were also advertised.

A baby version of the all-wooden doll is shown here, it has a bent-limb style of body with clenched fists. The doll measures 13 inches in height.

The dolls could be had as either an open-mouthed doll with inserted teeth or as a closed mouth doll. Their lathe turned bodies have very round torsos and carved derrières. The dolls ranged in height from 9” to 27”. Their elastic strung bodies range in design from crudely jointed 5-pc. bodies with rudimentarily carved hands and feet or 10-pc. bodies with attached ball joints at the shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees. These more detailed bodies have well carved hands in a somewhat cupped shape and well-defined toes on their feet. The painting of the dolls included such characteristics as plentiful eyelashes all the way around the eye and the 10-pc. bodies have detail lines on the fingers and toes, and blushing on the tops of the feet and hands.  The carving of features such as the doll’s nose, hands, and derrière are done in a sharp angular manner. Many of the dolls, particularly those of the smaller sizes, are found wearing original various world costumes.

Rudolf Schneider also made wooden baby dolls with carved hair which came on 5 pc. bent limb bodies. Examples of the Sonneberg Taufling (so-called Motschmann type) dolls have been found with wooden heads and hands carved in the same manner as those found on Bébé Tout en Bois.

Although the French doll industry was competing fiercely with the German doll makers during this period, they also relied heavily on supplies from Germany with companies such as SFBJ ordering porcelain heads from their rival country. The German-made, Bébé Tout en Bois seems to have been aimed specifically at the French market. Numerous Paris shops advertised them from 1902 through 1914. In 1902 the department store, Gamage, offered them in four sizes selling at $1.23 to $2.48. The Gamage ads also offered the dolls in 2 different quality grades. These dolls had a label with the words “The Basswood Doll” inside a diamond. 

A 13″ example has glass eyes and is wigged. Many of these smaller examples were costumed in French regional outfits and sold in Paris to the tourist trade. It is interesting to note that this doll retains its original “Made in France” label even though she did in fact originate in Germany. Once sold to French doll companies these dolls were then marketed as French products. Doll courtesy of Ruby Lane shop My Little Dolls 2.

La Place Clichy advertised Bébé Tout en Bois in 1905, ’07, and ’11. Moderns, also in Paris, sold them from 1902 through 1914, as did Petite St. Thomas, Samaratine, and Pymalion. With the advent of WWI in 1914 the import of these dolls came to a halt. After the war we find occasional mention of Bébé Tout en Bois or composition dolls with wooden bodies in the Bébé Tout en Bois style into about 1924 but the dolls do not seem to have ever regained their prewar popularity. Examples retaining good finish are prizes indeed for 21st century collectors.

Author – Linda Edward