Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

The first Betsy McCall paper doll was featured on the magazine’s cover and had an editorial layout in the issue to introduce this new character to the world. Accompanying text on the paper doll page told the readers that “Betsy is five, going on 6, and she lives in a little white house with a porch and a yard to play in. Her mother and daddy and Nosy her puppy, live in the white house too. Nosy is six months old. Betsy and Nosy and Betsy’s friends play together all the time. And every month from now on they’ll come to play with you too.”

Born in the marketing department of McCall’s magazine Betsy McCall was intended as a means to induce mothers and children to become involved in the world of fashion and sewing by engaging in play with paper dolls. But Betsy McCall would soon become much more.

In 1870 James McCall founded a company to publish and sell dress patterns. In 1873, looking for a way to advertise his pattern line, he founded The Queen magazine (renamed McCall’s Magazine—The Queen of Fashion in 1897 – later simply McCall’s). The magazine included editorials, advice, fiction, and paper dolls by such notables as Willa Cather, Jessie Willcox Smith, Barbara Hale, Norman Jacobsen, Ray Bradbury, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Steinbeck, and Kurt Vonnegut, just to name a few.

But it wasn’t until the Betsy McCall paper doll in the May 1951 issue that the character that to many, personified the magazine, made her debut appearance. She was drawn by artist Kay Morrissey. Morrissey would continue to draw the paper doll page through the June 1955 issue.

Many children of the baby-boomer generation waited eagerly for each new issue of McCall’s magazine for the pleasure of playing with the new edition of the Betsy McCall paper doll page.  The paper dolls were illustrated for the magazine in a variety of styles by numerous artists. Aside from Morrissey, some of the known illustrators of Betsy were; Renee Forsythe (August 1955 – 1958), Ginnie Hoffman (1958 – 1986), and Sue Shanahan (late 1990s).

This new character associated with fashion and wholesome middle-American life was instantly welcomed by the public. In 1952 The Ideal Toy Corporation was granted a license to make what would be the first of numerous 3-dimensional Betsy McCall Dolls.

Ideal’s Betsy was part of a group of dolls that the company hoped to promote as having educational value. Betsy McCall lent herself perfectly as a means of teaching fashion principles and the art of sewing. The 14″ doll came along with a perfect beginner sewer’s project in a McCall’s pattern to make aprons for both a child and the doll.

Ideal’s Betsy had a vinyl head sculpted by Bernard Lipfert and used the company’s existing hard plastic P90 (Toni) body. She had a saran wig. She retailed for $7.95 (equivalent to about $26 in 2020). This model was sold until 1954.

This excellent example of the 14″ Betsy McCall by Ideal retains for original hang tag. Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Gandtiques. The trade magazine ad on the right from the Bakelite Company promotes Union Carbide’s “vinyl resins” used in manufacturing the doll.
In 1956 a pattern for making a cloth version of Betsy was available. In 2001 a reworking of this pattern was included in McCall’s Retro pattern line.

In 1957 the American Character Doll Company obtained a license to produce Betsy McCall dolls. From 1957 to 1963 American Character offered a hard plastic 8″ doll (**Note on sizes – It appears that most of the American Character McCall dolls were in actuality a little smaller than their advertised sizes. The sizes mentioned here are found in the company ads).

These 8″ dolls were aimed to fit into the existing world of the other popular 8″ dolls of the time such as Ginny, Wendy, Ginger, etc., but Betsy had the proportions of fashion illustrations of the era with a slim torso. The first dolls had mohair wigs but these were soon replaced by saran wigs on rubber skull-caps. There were 5 hair colors offered, blonde, brunette, red, tosca and dark brunette.

Often referred to as “Tiny Betsy” by modern collectors, the earliest of the 8″ American Character dolls came in white boxes with little starburst flowers and gold lettering. Extra clothing was available for the 8″ dolls with some designs remaining from year to year and others going in and out of the line. A variety of cases could be purchased for the doll’s wardrobe.
The Strombecker Company of Moline, IL made furniture for the 8″ Betsy dolls. These were packaged in pink boxes. Photos courtesy McMasters-Harris Appletree Auctions.

American Character would go on to make 5 other models of Betsy McCall dolls. Their 14″ vinyl doll was available 1958 – 1959 on a slim body, jointed at the neck, shoulders, hips and waist. Her rooted saran hair could be had in 3 hair styles and four hair colors.

The 20″ vinyl doll introduced in 1959 was essentially a larger version of the 14″ model but had what today’s collectors would call “flirty” eyes, which the company called “rolling eyes.” Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Darling Dolls & Collectibles.
The vinyl 22″ doll, debuting in 1962, included additional joints at the wrist, upper thigh and ankle. She could be had in a shoulder length flip hairstyle or in a “pixie” cut as seen here. Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Nostalgic Images.

A 30″ vinyl doll was available from 1961 – 1962. This doll was a larger version of the 22″ doll and had two long hairstyle variations, one with bangs and one in a pull-back look.

In 1959 American Character also offered dolls in the then popular “companion” size of 34″. These blow-molded dolls were made for the company by Model Plastics of White Plains, NY. Model Plastics was a consortium used by American Character, Arranbee and Madame Alexander. In addition to the companion sized Betsy, the company also offered Betsy’s cousins 34″ green-eyed Linda (photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Camelot Studio Vintage Doll Clothes) and 36″Sandy (photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Lana & Esther’s Dolls, Bears & ETC). These dolls retailed at $30 (about $269 in today’s money!)
 McCall’s published a number of patterns that fit the various models of
American Character dolls.
Betsy McCall was the subject of many other toys and children’s accessories of the 1950s – 70s.

A number of other companies eventually obtained licensing agreements to produce Betsy McCall dolls.

The Uneeda doll company of Brooklyn, NY brought out an 11.5″ vinyl doll in 1964.

The Canadian-American Records Ltd. released three LP albums bringing the Betsy’s adventures to life. Betsy McCall’s Surprise Birthday Party, Betsy McCall Goes To School and Betsy McCall Tells Bedtime Stories all featured the Uneeda doll company’s version of Betsy on their covers. Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop The Museum Doll Shop.

Horsman Inc. of New York City, NY released a 12.5 doll in 1974 and a 29″in 1975. Both of these Betsy’s had little resemblance to the previous sculpts used for McCall dolls or to the paper doll illustrations. In fact, Horsman simply used existing face sculpts from other doll products in their line and called them Betsy McCall. (This is why the markings on the head of the 29″ doll show the earlier patent information).

Others would follow with Tomy of Japan making a Betsy McCall doll in 1986. The production of this doll was eventually transferred to the Larami Corporation. The Rothschild Doll Company of Southboro, MA made a hard plastic version of Betsy McCall to commemorate the 35th anniversary of this iconic doll and under their Heirloom Tradition line they had a 14″ porcelain Betsy. But again, these dolls bore little if any, resemblance to the original Betsy designs.

Companies such as Horseman and Tomy relied on the public’s awareness of and fond association with the Betsy McCall name to sell their versions of the doll. Rothschild Doll Co.  doll photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Michele’s Antique Dolls.

To the delight of collectors and children doll maker Robert Tonner took up the rights to make Betsy McCall once again. His 14″ doll was introduced in 1996. An 8″ model released in 2000 was a modern version of the earlier American Character doll. Drawing on Tonner’s fashion design skills this doll had a wide range of outfits. Tonner also produced a 29″ model. Tonner’s Betsy McCall dolls stopped production in 2009.

Robert Tonner’s Betsy McCall dolls were a treat for children and collectors alike.

Betsy McCall remains an icon of the American dream of the second half of the 20th century, an inspiration to generations of young fashion and sewing enthusiasts and a joy to modern doll collectors.

Author – Linda Edward

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