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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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