Ever since the earliest days of toy manufacturing there has been an ongoing challenge to create beautiful, huggable dolls of a material that would prove to be unbreakable. This was the underlying motive of the makers of rubber dolls of the 19th century. Natural rubber is found in a number of plant sources ranging from rubber trees to dandelions, which produce latex. This latex is gathered in much the same way as maple sap is gathered to make maple sugar. The gathered latex liquid is then processed in various ways and ultimately molded into finished forms.
The process of making malleable products of rubber which would stand up to climate and use was a project that obsessed 19th century inventor Charles Goodyear. Goodyear started his experiments with rubber in 1834. Although others had been offering items made from the rubber plant, these products tended to melt during summer heat or harden and shatter in winter cold. Goodyear felt certain there was a way to stabilize rubber making it possible to produce a wide variety of useful finished goods. His experiments over the ensuing years would eventually lead him to try mixing rubber with sulfur. Serendipity intervened when one day while working with the mixture he dropped some of the material onto a hot stove and saw it change to a much more stable form. Goodyear would go on to patent his process, which he called Vulcanization, in 1844.
Goodyear leased rights for the use of his process to manufacturers of all types of products including doll makers. Rubber dolls were shown in Goodyear catalogs as well as those of companies such as the India Rubber Comb Company, the New York Rubber Company, Silber & Fleming, G.H. Norton, and numerous others. Most of these companies that made rubber dolls were actively engaged in the business of manufacturing products of rubber, using the newest technologies available, dolls were one of many products they made.
Over the ensuing one hundred-plus years many various formulations of rubber have been used for doll making. Many of these products had an advantage of being soft, squeezable and easily cleaned during their first “play life.”
Perhaps surprisingly to 21st century collectors, the rubber dolls of the 19th century have often survived in better condition than their mid-20th century counterparts. Telling the story of technology and doll making, rubber dolls are an interesting niche in the world of collecting.
Author – Linda Edward
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