Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

A century and a half after their creation, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women continue to delight readers and doll collectors. Ruth Gibbs, Inc. debuted their 7″ china Little Women dolls in 1951. Photo courtesy of the proprietor of the Ruby Lane shop Oldeclectics.

Little did Louisa May Alcott know when she wrote Little Women that it would become a treasured piece of juvenile literature. The book would lead to over 20 various movie and television adaptations and would inspire many doll makers to create dolls in the likenesses of the story’s characters.

The novel Little Women sprung from the seed planted in 1867 when Alcott’s editor Thomas Niles asked her to write a book about girls, something that would have a wide appeal. Alcott herself was not particularly excited about the concept, but through the urging of her publishers and her father, she set out to write the story of four adolescent girls and their journey to adulthood.

Children’s literature of the post-civil war era generally portrayed girls as longing for romance culminating in marriage or as marginalized characters concerned only with frivolity or domestic affairs.  Alcott’s characters were steeped in this existing culture but were also filled with hopes and dreams that supported their desires to lead useful lives while nurturing and expressing their individuality.

Originally printed in two volumes (Vol 1 in 1868 and Vol 2 in 1869) the books met with financial success beyond anything imagined by the author or her publishers. Vol 2 sold more than 13000 copies within weeks of its debut. Later printings in the USA would combine the two volumes into one. The book became tremendously popular in the USA, Britain, and eventually all over the world inspiring stage plays, films, television programs, musicals, an opera, countless other little women inspired products, and even a Japanese anime series. But perhaps closest to the hearts of doll collectors today are the many versions of these characters that have been translated into doll form.

A page from the May 1949 issue of Playthings magazine pictures floor displays of the 14″ dolls at B Altman and FAO Schwarz. The hard plastic “Maggie’ face doll is shown here.

Chief among those to realize the popularity of dolls depicting the Marchs and their friends was Madame Alexander. Some of her very earliest cloth dolls included the March sisters. These 16″dolls came out in the early 1930s, the earliest examples had pressed felt faces and mohair wigs. Later examples had cloth mask faces and yarn hair.

The 1933 release of the film directed by George Cukor further enhanced the sale of Madame’s dolls. In 1935 composition Little Women were introduced using the 7″ Tiny Betty mold. These were sold individually and in sets. Composition little women were also available in 9″ and 13 – 15″ sizes.

The 1949 film version was tremendously popular and stimulated demand for Madame Alexander’s hard plastic Little Women dolls.  These were 14″tall. The earliest of these had strung bodies and floss wigs, their hands were small.

As time progressed changes to hand size occurred, a walker mechanism was added to the body and the wigs changed from floss to saran. From 1950 to 1952 a set of 15″ Little Men was also available. These hard-plastic dolls are quite desirable when found today. 8″ hard plastic Little Women joined the line in 1955. The 8″ dolls were sometimes used to create shadow versions of the larger dolls.

Little Women dolls have remained popular in the Alexander line throughout the years and followed the same general trends of materials and body construction as seen on other Alexander dolls. The “Lissy” face was used for these dolls beginning in 1957.

The “Nancy Drew” face was used for this 12″ set from the early 1980s.

In 1990 a special set of 10″ dolls was made for Spiegel’s department store’s 125th anniversary. The FAO Schwarz Christmas catalog of 1994 featured an exclusive Madame Alexander set to coincide with the Columbia Pictures movie released that year. In 1996 a 10″ set of Little Women appeared in the Alexander general line. From 1997 to 2000 a 16″ set called “Little Women Journals” was released. 2001 saw a set of 5″ tall porcelain dolls called “Very Little Women.” In 2019 the company released a new 8″ set in anticipation of the latest movie.

In addition to the dolls created by Madame Alexander numerous other companies would bring out their versions of these beloved characters.

Frances Diecks was born in Cohoes, New York and studied at the New York School of Fine Arts. In the 1930s and early 40s she was becoming well known for the wonderful cloth dolls she made representing stars of the stage. She would go on to continue making dolls with her husband Bernard Ravca whom she wed in 1947.

Diecks’ “Jo” is a 12″ cloth with yarn hair and was marked with a hand-written paper tag.

In the mid twentieth century, the dolls of yesterday were being regarded with a sense of nostalgia and Ruth Gibbs Godey’s Lady dolls were reminiscent of the china dolls of the previous generation or two. The Gibbs line included Little Women dolls in the late 1940s. They were available individually and in 5 doll sets which included the March girls in a 7″ size and a 9″ Marme.

The well-known second and third quarter of the 20th century mail-order doll company Kimport, included artist made Little Women dolls under their Kimcraft label. These were shown in their 1948 catalog.

Kimport’s dolls were made of a composition-like moldable material. The largest doll in the set was 9 ½ inches tall and they are a real treat for the collector lucky enough to find them today. Doll photo courtesy of Morphy auctions.

In the early 1950s American doll artist Martha Thompson sculpted a beautiful set of Little Women dolls. These glass eyed dolls were 18″ tall, had porcelain shoulderheads, lower arms and legs on cloth bodies. Each was finely detailed with elaborate headwear and hairstyles. Thompson was a member of NIADA and she marked her dolls with both incised and stamped marks.

Paper doll versions of the Little Women have been popular throughout the years. A set published by Raphael Tuck & Sons even mentions the film on its box cover. Saalfield Publishing of Akron Ohio did several different sets of Little women paper dolls during the 1950s and 60s. Throughout the remainder of the 20th century many paper doll artists have chosen to illustrate sets of these immortal characters.

The Hallmark company produced a series of paper doll cards in 1949. These doll cards had front and back images and verses on the inside of the cards.

Yield House, of Conway, New Hampshire sold a variety of goods through its catalogs and retail shops from 1947 through the 1990s.  In the 1960s and 70s their line included porcelain doll kits. These kits featuring historical and fictional characters found great popularity due to the approaching American bicentennial. The set of porcelain Little Women dolls they offered were nicely modeled and provided an opportunity for many budding collectors to dream of days gone by and enter the world of doll collecting. 

Also, riding this wave of nostalgia was Woman’s Day magazine.  Their Little Woman pattern was introduced in the November 1963 issue of the magazine with a multipage spread showing the completed dolls and accessories.  The actual pattern was available as a mail in purchase.

The Woman’s Day pattern included the pattern of four 17″ dolls, each of which had directions and templates for embroidered feature which gave each doll a different expression.

Ideal licensed a tie-in to the 1949 movie creating their own version of the March girls in 1976. Their vinyl versions of Meg, Jo, and Amy were 12″ tall, while Beth was 8″ tall. This followed the casting of that movie version in which MGM had made Beth the youngest of the sisters and had her played by Margaret O’Brien.

In 1977 Shackman of Chicago brought out a line of porcelain Little Women. These were kits to make up 15″ dolls. The kit came with porcelain shoulderheads, lower arms and legs and pattern and fabric for completing cloth bodies.  Each doll was molded with different details underscoring their personalities.

Shown here (L to R) are examples by Shackman, Yield House, and the Franklin mint.

The 1980s boom in modern collector dolls led to the production of many versions of little women dolls. New companies entered the arena with dolls aimed at a collecting market and established companies offered their versions of these characters.  Late 20th and early 21st century doll artists would continue to favor Alcott’s characters.

Wendy Lawton designed a 15″ set of Little Women which were released in 1994 by Ashton Drake as their The Little Women Collection. In 1995 Marmee was added to the line. Under Lawton’s Connoisseur Collection, another set called Little Women Revisited was released in the early 21st century. These dolls were 14″ tall and presented more grown up versions of the girls than the previous Lawton Little Women design.

In 1995 American doll artist Kathy Redmond created a wonderful set of dolls for the UFDC region 10 Conference in Chicago. Mattel made Jo as part of their Timeless Treasures™ edition’s, When I read, I Dream™ collection in 2001. In 2017 Maggie Iacono made her version of Jo as the souvenir for the UFDC Region 15 conference.

Shown here (L to R) are imaginings of Jo March by Wendy Lawton, Kathy Redmond and Maggie Iacono.

With the recently released movie another generation will undoubtedly fall under the spell of Alcott’s characters and we can only wait to see what new versions of the March sisters appear in doll form.

Author – Linda Edward

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