Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

World Doll Day was envisioned as a means of bringing people together through sharing dolls.

In 1974 Rock musician Nick Lowe wrote a song entitled “What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?” Over 40 years later the theme of the song still resonates in a world that is often troubled by lack of understanding, love and peace.  In 1986 well-known doll world authority Mildred Seely also sought to foster these same goals when she initiated World Doll Day. Her thought was that sharing a doll with a friend or a stranger could lead to something lasting and special. In her inaugural World Doll Day letter, she wrote “I have always felt that the common doll could be an instrument of world understanding. From the first time I started writing books on doll making, I had the hope that dolls would help make friends all over the world and develop a little love among all.”

Seeley’s idea can be said to have come out of a well-established tradition of using dolls to advance positive social initiatives. During the Civil War era in the USA many women’s groups created doll related projects to raise funds for social causes such as veteran’s hospitals, aid for widows and orphans, and missionary work. Many dolls were costumed and raffled as fund raisers at the various sanitary fairs of the time. These women took the skills and experience they had in needlecraft and used them to make their world a better place.

The Ladies Sewing Society of the Moravian Church Guild in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania began their doll making project to raise funds for the aid of wounded Civil War soldiers. After the war, the funds were used to help former slaves and eventually to aid Moravian ministers and for other charity work. The First Presbyterian Church of Bucyrus, Ohio began a doll making project of their own in 1885. The funds raised greatly aided in the construction of a new church building and later for a variety of mission projects. These dolls would continue to be made sporadically through the 1980s. Julia Jones Beecher made her first cloth doll as a gift for her young niece but she quickly realized the humanitarian possibilities of her doll. With the aid of the sewing circle of the Park Congregational Church in Elmira, NY the missionary rag doll provided means of funding charity work from 1893 to 1910.

Moravian rag dolls have been made by members of the Ladies Sewing Society of the Moravian Church Guild of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from 1872 – present, making this project the longest running doll charity project known.
The wooden dolls made by the Door of Hope project sold world wide in support of this mission’s community service project.

The Door of Hope Mission was begun in 1900 in Shanghai, China by an American ecumenical missionary group. At the time it was common practice in china to sell female servants or children, for the purpose of becoming concubines. The Door of Hope Mission rescued girls, who were then taught sewing skills and dressmaking. The history and culture of these young students was celebrated in the meticulously dressed dolls made at the mission. The graduates of the school were empowered through this program to earn a decent living or make good marriages which lead to a standard of living than would have otherwise not have been possible for them.

During WWI doll making workshops were opened in many countries in an effort to provide dolls and toys to the world’s children. A great number of these workshops also maintained goals of providing work for refugee artisans and to raise funds for war victims. One such venture was organized by Mme. Stefania Lazarska. Lazarska had made dolls in Poland before coming to Paris in 1914. As the war progressed, she brought together a group of Polish refugees, including many artists, and started her doll making workshop. Eventually her workshop provided employment to over 200 women. The dolls they created were made of cloth, felt, leather, and wax and were very simple in design to “appeal to children.”  These dolls were sold by the National American Committee for the Polish Victim’s Relief Fund. Many funds were raised by the sale of the dolls and went to feed Polish women and children displaced by the war.

Madame Helena Paderewski was the wife of a famous pianist which allowed her to travel broadly throughout the war. On one such trip to Paris she visited the workshop of Mme. Lazarska. The Paderewskis helped promote the sale of the Polish Relief dolls in the USA providing much needed help to war widows and orphans.

Out of the depths of the American economic depression of the 1930s came the various projects under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. The WPA established by President Roosevelt in 1935 provided work for laborers, artists, and home workers. WPA projects making dolls and toys were launched in most states within the USA. These projects provided steady income for the artists that designed the projects, the business people that administrated the projects and for the men and women that were taught to make the various dolls and toys. The finished products went on to serve the world in schools, hospitals, and day care centers as well as being sold.

The Milwaukee WPA doll Project made wonderful cloth dolls. The flat faced twins were designed by Elizabeth Pasler and were introduced in 1938. Note the pair of these dolls sitting on the shelf in the image of this publicly funded day care center of the era.

These early benefit doll projects led the way for more modern fund raiser dolls such as rag dolls made by the United Church of Christ in the 1980s and the multitude of fair-trade co-operative projects around the world today whose doll making projects provide resources for local needs.

In the early 20th century Rose O’Neill rose to fame as the highest paid female illustrator in the United States and the creator or the creator of the kewpies which were eventually made in doll form, she also became active in the cause for women’s rights. Ignoring publicized criticism of her association with the Women’s Movement, O’Neill utilized the immense popularity of the Kewpie character to endorse and garner attention to her favorite political causes which included women’s suffrage. 

As the 20th century moved forward so did the struggle for equal rights. Women’s Suffrage movements which had taken root in the 19th century pushed forward with a new determination. In England Sylvia Pankhurst and her East London Federation of Suffragettes opened a factory to produce shoes, clothing, and toys including dolls. This project was meant to create employment opportunities for women and included such radical ideas as on-site daycare for its workers. On August 18, 1920 American Women won the right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment.

Public awareness of the need for realistic baby dolls of all ethnicities helped to promote positive self-image in children and aided in the struggle for social equality for all

As the 20th century progressed America began to understand the need for equal rights in practice for all of its citizens and a woman named Sara Lee Creech began to develop her idea for a racially correct African American doll that would bolster positive self-image in black children. Sara took her idea to Human Relations Consultant Maxeda von Hesse and sculptor Sheila Burlingame and together they created their new doll. Saralee dolls were made by Ideal in 1951.

The use of dolls as fundraisers for charity projects. Continued through the second half of the 20th century.

Through the 1940s, 50s and 60s many women’s groups and service leagues used Mary Hoyer dolls and clothing made from Hoyer patterns as fundraisers to support a wide range of social causes.

Today doll clubs and other organizations continue this tradition of using dolls to make the world a better place through using dolls as fund raisers or donating dolls to charity. Mildred Seeley understood the power of doll collecting and her vision of a better world is still being striven for by doll collectors world-wide because doll collectors know the power of a doll to touch the human spirit and the impact, we as a group can have on the world around us, all through a joint interest in dolls.

Author – Linda Edward

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