The mid-20th century saw many a little girl spending happy hours imagining a life dedicated to serving others through the field of nursing care. A plethora of dolls were created to bolster these ambitions and promote the rapidly evolving standard of training for professional nurses.
Most companies making dolls and other toys included products aimed at playing Nurse. These included Madame Alexander, Ideal, American Character, Vogue Dolls, Effanbee, Nancy Ann Storybook Dolls, Mary Hoyer, Mattel, the list goes on and on. Although the era was a time of progressive attitudes there was still a lingering idea that nursing was one of the acceptable career paths for women. Which makes it seem ironic that just one century before, nursing was considered an unacceptable occupation for a woman of good breeding.
The history of professional nursing can be said to have its roots in the hospitals of ancient Rome. During the medieval period nursing care was offered by religious houses at convents and monasteries. But for most people the only nursing care to be found for sick, injured or terminal patients was within the home, often falling to the women of the household who could do little else but care for bodily needs, attempt to comfort, and to worry and pray.
By the mid-19th century nursing care within hospitals was more widely available but varied considerably as nurses were for the most part untrained workers or patient family members. In the 1850s this began to change due to the efforts of an Englishwoman named Florence Nightingale. Nightingale flew in the face of convention, in choosing her course in life. As a daughter of a well-to-do family her expected role was to be as a wife and mother overseeing the running a society household. But Florence believed that as an educated woman she had more to offer the world. She felt called to bring her philosophy of scientific hygiene to practical nursing and believed that standardizing nursing education would not only provide better care for the sick but would also open up a wider avenue for women to work outside the realms of marriage and domestic servitude. In 1853 she became the superintendent at the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London. In 1854 she took a group of nurses to the battlefield of the Crimean War. Serving at an army hospital in Turkey, the changes in sanitation, ventilation and nutrition that she and her nurses provided caused the death rate among the wounded soldiers to drop from 60 percent to 2 percent!
The inroads made by Nightingale in raising the acceptability of the profession, the level of training for nurses and the standard of care for patients has led to her being credited as laying the foundations for the modern profession of nursing.
After Nightingale, many other women, and men would follow, constantly raising the bar of caring for those in need. These dedicated and caring professionals have worked for the good of humanity for over a century and a half through war, poverty and pandemic. As doll collectors we are acutely aware that the dreams played out with childhood dolls can have a lasting impact on adult lives and the whole world as we celebrate and preserve the nurse dolls in our collections.