Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

Besides being toys and art objects, dolls have played a role as educational tools for centuries. 

Noted scholars including G. Stanley Hall, Laura Starr, and Janet Pagter Johl have written about the educational value of dolls for some time.  Mary Hillier in Dolls and Doll Makers pictures two wooden dolls that were used to solve a murder, and Frances Glessner Lee, a forensic pathologist, created dollhouse shadow boxes to solve cold case murders.  Dr. Kenneth Clark conducted experiments on children and their dolls.   Dr. Clark and his wife Mamie asked black children if they liked black or white dolls better. The case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) made Dr. Clark’s experiment famous because it was mentioned in the opinion of the case. Dr. Clark’s results helped win Brown for the plaintiffs, and thus the “separate but equal” case of Plessey v. Ferguson (1896) was reversed by the United State’s Supreme Court.  Segregation in schools and elsewhere were now illegal in the United States.  Dolls played a vital role in a case that was key in The Civil Rights Movement.

Artist Unknown Early Gentleman, circa 1860s U.S.A., Massachusetts Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography, New York City, courtesy Deborah Neff Collection

Artist Unknown Woman with Pink Blouse, late 19th century U.S.A. Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography, New York City, courtesy Deborah Neff Collection

When this blogger taught diversity and culture, she liked using African dolls and black dolls for class assignments.  One lesson involved two displays of dolls.  One was a selection of black and brown bisque dolls from the 1880s to the present.  These were dolls made by Western artists of all heritages.   They were often white dolls glazed or painted brown or black, like the black Chatty Cathy or black Francie.  On the other hand, the dolls and masks from Africa were astounding in their diversity.  The theme of the lesson was that the African dolls represented how the people of Africa saw themselves in all their beauty and diversity, and the western dolls represented how the rest of the world saw them.  It made a powerful statement wherever it was presented.  A mask inspired Picasso in his exploration and invention of Cubism.  In fact, ethnic dolls at a doll museum inspired his painting “Les Demoiselles de Avignon.”  Picasso also designed other dolls and painted his daughter Paloma with them.

African American doll artists have contributed to the art and study of dolls with remarkable creations in all media.  Floyd Bell began making dolls well over 30 years ago.  His hand-carved and jointed creations are his most recent passion.  He has even created portraits of former President Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama.

Doll Artist Floyd Bell via Los Angeles Sentinel Ms. Bell is shown in a screen capture from a May 1972 issue of Ebony magazine with some of her dolls representing historical African Americans via

Another pioneer black doll artist was Roberta Bell, (1904-92), who first began making dolls in the 1940s.   Roberta Bell used a variety of media, too, including papier mache, cloth, and self-drying clay.  She was known for meticulous research and for creating dolls of famous African Americans. Her work is on display at The Philadelphia Doll Museum, which features black dolls, and she has been called a trailblazer for her art.

Artist Unknown (possibly Frank Brady) Young Man with Tribal Elements, circa 1930's U.S.A., Found in Alabama, Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography, New York City, courtesy Deborah Neff Collection

Folk dolls made by slaves are valuable pieces of Americana that tell of historical struggle and injustice, and black dolls made of nuts, wood, nipples, cloth, and other materials are the subject of museums and exhibits all their own. These are poignant examples of emergent dolls made by people who had an artistic need to fill but little money for materials. 

Their imaginations served them well, as in the coconut head dolls done by Isabel Greathouse. Janet Pagter Johl wrote of these black folk dolls and pictured them in her books. Examples of these and other folk dolls exist in Wendy Lavitt’s American Folk Dolls, Myla Perkins’ Black Dolls series, and Carl Fox’s The Doll Lavitt pictures one beautiful, large doll carved from an old bedpost.

Artist Unknown Woman in House Dress, circa 1920-1930s U.S.A. mixed fabrics. Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography, New York City, courtesy Deborah Neff Collection Artist Unknown Smiling Boy with Striped Shirt, late 19th-early 20th century U.S.A. Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography, New York City, courtesy Deborah Neff Collection Isabelle Greathouse Coconut-Head Doll, circa 1900-1930 U.S.A., Butler County, Kentucky Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography, New York City, courtesy Deborah Neff Collection 1968 Barbie Doll Friend Twist and Turn Christie

The legacy of black dolls continued through the twentieth century.  Shindana Toys, a division of Operation Bootstrap, was founded in 1968; the same year Mattel issued the first black Barbie friend, Christie, who soon had her own boyfriend, Brad. Black Barbie herself appeared in 1980, and she has had many makeovers since.  Dolls from Shindana included Malika, a bride and bridesmaid, and The Little Friends Collection.  Little friends included dolls that were Asian, Black, Hispanic or White boys or girls.  After the company went out of business, a craft company picked up the molds, and the dolls were remade and sold in baggies nude, ready to be dressed.   Madame Alexander and Vogue made black versions of some of their most popular baby dolls, including Pussycat and Baby Dear.  Even before there was a black Barbie, there was a black Tressy created by American Character, now a rare doll.

Addie of The American Girls has her own following, and other black dolls have become the specialty of past and current collectors including designer Patrick Kelley and Oprah Winfrey.   According to Margo Jefferson, one of the contributors to the book Black Dolls, “Dolls have no rights a human is bound to respect. These black dolls present people with few rights a white person was bound to respect.” (Maresca, Frank, ed.  Black Dolls: From the Collection of Deborah Neff. Radius Books. 2015.) 

Yet, to doll artists, doll collectors, and folk art enthusiasts, these dolls are the epitome of all that is right with collecting.  The dolls are expressions and portraits of the people who made them, and they speak eloquently for them.

19th Century Black Cloth Rag Doll Human Hair Wig Embroidered Face Vintage Cloth African American Black Doll Folk Art Pair OOAK Black Cloth Artist Doll by Rhonda King

Explore Black Vintage and Antique Dolls on Ruby Lane

Black Cloth Dolls on Ruby Lane

About the Guest Blog Author: Ellen Tsagaris has collected dolls since she was three years old. She has made dolls, priced dolls, repaired, dressed, and studied dolls. Besides dolls, she has studied other antiques and collectibles at museums, antiques shows, auctions, and flea markets since she was in grade school. She has set up at craft shows and presented papers on dolls and their history at the Midwest Modern Language Association.  She is the author of several articles on dolls that have appeared in Doll Reader, National Doll World, Doll Designs, International Doll World, Hope and Glory, Doll News, Adventures, and The Western Doll Collector. She is the author of two books about dolls, Bibliography of Doll and Toy Sources and With Love from Tin Lizzie; A History of Metal Heads, Metal Dolls, Mechanical Dolls, and Automatons.  An active blogger, she features two blogs about dolls, Dr. E’s Doll Museum, and Doll Museum.  She lectures on dolls for various organizations and has displayed part of her collection in museums.

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