Soft, translucent, malleable – wax has long been an ideal material for making representations on the human form. Some of the finest dolls of the past 3 centuries were made of wax.
In ancient times the Egyptians and Romans used wax to create human effigies. By the Middle Ages wax was used in the making of Christian church figures of the Holy Family and the Saints. The 17-century Dutch Curiosity Cabinets which displayed a wide range of miniatures often included wax dolls.
By the late 18th century and into the 19th century wax dolls were becoming more available. Many of these were made in England. The dolls referred to today as “English Slit-head” dolls were widely available in the 1840s, 50s and 60s. These were wax coated paper mâché whose hair was inserted through a center slit on the top of the doll’s head.
Other English wax dolls were of the “Poured Wax” variety. Melted wax was poured into molds, allowed to set and then the excess wax was poured off, creating a hollow doll head. The dolls hair was added using a variety of techniques to set it in place on the wax scalps. These dolls became the high-end luxury toys of the mid and third quarter of the 19th century. Ethel Newcome is a beautiful Poured Wax doll that resides at The United Federation of Doll Clubs, Inc museum in Kansas City. Tour the UFDC Museum and learn more about Ethel Newcome by clicking this link.
German doll makers also produced wax dolls, the majority of these were “Reinforced Wax” or “Wax-Over” dolls. This means of making a wax doll relied on using a head made of papier-mâché, composition, wood, or porcelain which was then coated with wax. Molded hair and bonnet-head wax-over dolls as well poured wax dolls were made in various regions of Germany throughout the 19th century.
The popularity achieved by wax dolls is evident in the articles appearing in periodicals, such as an 1856 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Magazine, which provided directions for making wax dolls at home.
In France doll makers such as Schmitt et Fils made wax-over dolls. Many other French doll making firms also sold wax dolls although these may have been German dolls costumed and sold as French.
In 1908 French doll makers such as Mme Louise Lafitte et Mme Augusta Désirat made wax art dolls. These sisters were helped in this endeavor by the Musée de Grevin (a wax works museum). The primary focus of these dolls was their costuming. Enjoy more of these dolls here.
For the most part by the early 20th century wax play dolls were beginning to fall out of favor but they continued to be made well into the 1920s. In the 1930s American doll artists began making dolls not for children but for adult collectors. Artists such as Louis Sorensen, the Hidalgo family, Irma Park, Sheila Wallace, Crees and Coe, and numerous others used wax and wax-over techniques to create beautiful dolls, making this a very dynamic niche within doll collecting.
Lewis Sorensen created the 18″ character-face peddler doll pictured at right. Although the wax doll as a plaything for children may be passé, the wax doll as plaything for adult collectors is likely to be with us for years to come.
Author – Linda Edward
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