Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

It has been said that the invention of porcelain was China’s greatest gift to the world. The origins of the porcelain commonly referred to as China date back to the 16th century BC. The Chinese discovered that kaolin clay mixed with feldspar and then fired at a very high temperature fused to become porcelain. Soon this smooth, white, translucent material became prized the world over.

Most models of china dolls were made in a wide range of sizes from over 30″ down to 4″. This grouping range between 5″ and 6″ and include a so-called Sophia Smith style which has a deep undercut to her molded curls, a modified Sophia Smith with graduated curls, and a Young Victoria style with her hair loped around her ears (so named after the style Queen Victoria wore at her wedding).

By the 18th century European and British potters had unraveled the mystery of making porcelains which closely imitated those of Chinese origins. China dolls were reportedly made as early as 1750 but it was not until the 1840s that china came into wide use for making dolls. These china dolls became extremely popular and had an advantage over the wooden and paper-mache dolls that preceded them as they were easily molded and their fired on painted finish made them quite durable. China dolls most commonly have molded, painted hairdos, reflecting the popular styles of the day. The language of identification developed by doll collectors of the 20th and 21st centuries generally refers to china dolls by the hairstyles they portray.

 Glass eyes and brown eyes in early china dolls are considered rarity factors.

Millions of these china head dolls were exported from Europe to a world market. Due to taxes placed on imported items which were often based on cargo weight, many china dolls were shipped to the American market as heads only and sold to be placed on home-made bodies. The height of popularity for the china headed doll was the years between 1840 and 1880. Rarities in china heads include dolls with glass eyes, swivel necks, pierced ears, bald heads made to receive hair wigs or a slit in the bald head to insert hair into, and molded or applied china decorations such as combs and jewelry.

Molded bonnets on china dolls of the 1850s to 1870s are another rare and desirable feature. Photo courtesy of the proprietors of the Ruby Lane shop Honeyandshars .

Among some of the earliest of china dolls were the pink chinas of the early 1840s, which were made by German factories such as Meissen, Konigliche Porzellan Fanufactur referred to as (KPM), and Schlaggenwald, as well as the royal Copenhagen Factory in Denmark and Jacob Petit of France.

The so-called Covered Wagon style of china doll has pink blush skin tone and a simple hairstyle. These dolls first appeared in the 1840s. This 18″ example was named Luella by her original owner has come down through the years with a series of photos showing the doll in her original home-made wardrobe. Sadly, these clothes are now missing but the doll remains as a testament to the little girl who treasured her.

Moving through the decades of the 19th century dolls evolved to follow the dictates of popular fashions and the names applied to these various models by modern collectors reflect styles or personalities associated with those eras.

The doll on the left is attributed to Conte and Bohme, note her upward glancing eyes and pierced ears. The doll on the right is a variation of the style referred to today and as Adelina Patti, with her curls high on the temples.

By the 1870s, 80s and 90s the bisque child dolls of France and Germany came to dominate the doll market and china dolls began to lose favor. By the early years of the 20th century these dolls were for the most part relegated to the lower priced end of the market although some interesting and lovely dolls were still being made. China dolls cycled out of favor as toys by the 1920s and 30s but it was at that same time that the growing hobby of doll collecting began to embrace these dolls which were at that time highly nostalgic to the collectors of the day. This in turn led to the growing interest in reproduction china dolls which blossomed from the 1930s to the 1970s.

China dolls depicting children of the 1880s were made by firms such as Alt, Beck & Gottschalk, Kling and others. Blonde hair which was less often seen on earlier china dolls is quite common during this period.
China dolls from the first half of the 19th century were eagerly sought and highly prized by the doll collectors of the early 20th century and are now rising once again in popularity with the collectors of the early 21st century. Photo courtesy of The Doll Collectors of America, Inc.

Today the elegant china ladies and gentlemen of the 19th century are again climbing in favor with collectors and provide a tangible link to that romanticized time.

Author – Linda Edward


Mona Borger China, Dolls For Study and Admiration. Hayden: Borger Publications, 1983

Dorothy S., Elizabeth A., Evelyn J. Coleman The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Dolls Vol. I & II. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1968 & 1986

Elizabeth A. Coleman, assisted by Kathy Turner Inside Porcelain Doll Shoulder Heads. Washington: Elizabeth Ann Coleman, 2018

Mary Gorham Krombholz Identifying German Chinas 1840s – 1930s. Grantsville: Hobby House Press, 2004

Madeline Osborne Merrill The Art of Dolls. Cumberland: Hobby House Press, 1985

Eleanor St. George The Dolls of Yesterday. New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948

Eleanor St. George Dolls of Three Centuries. New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951

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