Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

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.

From the 1950s through the end of the 20th century many girls imagined themselves as nurses while playing with their dolls. Left is Miss Nancy Ann in her nursing uniform (Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Vermont Vintage at the Round Barn).  Center is Mattel’s Julia based on Diahann Carroll’s ground-breaking television nurse. On the right is Dakin’s Ginny Nurse from the late 1980s.
During WWI nursing gained popular respect as a profession and many German bisque dolls of the era were costumed in nursing garb. The doll on the left is a Simon & Halbig mold 1159 lady. (Photo courtesy of Morphy auctions). The doll on the right is a 17″ turned shoulder-head, mold 639, by Alt, Beck and Gottschalk. (Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Kathy Libraty’s Antiques). 
Left to right are: A 14.5″ German bisque shoulder-head doll with molded hair and glass eyes. (Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop The Precious Antique Dolls and Accessories). Bleuette models her Gautier-Languereau Nurse’s dress, apron, cape and cap. (Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Chérubins). The 14″ celluloid nurse is by the French maker Petitcollin and dates to the 1930s. (Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Hildegard’s Toy Emporium).

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. 

Antique images show dolls in nursing scenes. The ca. 1918 photo on the left shows a doll being used by a Red Cross nurse to demonstrate infant care to a new mother. (Photo from the Library of Congress). On the right is an image on a post card showing a little girl providing care to a Chase doll. Interestingly, the Chase doll company made dolls especially to be used in nurse’s training as well as making dolls for play. (Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Memories Of Things Past).
Red Cross service groups and nursing schools often displayed dolls dressed in nursing uniforms. Left are a group of dolls dressed in 1920 by the Chicago Junior Red Cross in various nursing uniforms. (Photo from the Library of Congress). Right, the Little Nurse Company of Cedar Rapids, Iowa provided their little hard plastic, sleep eyed dolls in the various uniforms used in nursing schools in the USA. 
Miss Curity was an advertising logo designed to promote the first-aid products of the Kendall Corporation. Miss Curity was made in a variety of doll forms. On the bottom left is a 6″ hard plastic example.  Upper left is the 14″ hard plastic version put out by Ideal Toy Co. (Photo courtesy of Frasher’s Auctions). On the right is a 20″ composition example. (Photo courtesy of Morphy auctions).

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.

Many, many nursing play-sets were made from the mid-20th and into the 21st centuries providing children with the uniforms and tools to care for their sick dollies. Left is Effanbee’s Patsy Nurse set, on the right is a 1950s set by Hasbro.
Florence Nightingale, known as “The Lady with the Lamp” set standards of training and hygiene which are still used in nurse’s training today. Mattel included a Nightingale doll in their 2018 Inspiring Women Series.
Madame Alexander offered not only nurse dolls such as the 12″ composition doll on the left, but also provided the perfect patient in their vinyl Marybel the Doll that Gets Well which came with a variety of illnesses, injuries and cures. (Photo courtesy Withington Auctions).
Sets of nursing themed paper dolls were popular throughout the 20th century. (Photo courtesy Morphy Auctions).

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.

Miniature doll-house dolls have also been available as nurses from the early years of the 20th century through today. Clockwise from upper left: A German made bisque doll house nurse (Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Sara Bernstein’s Dolls), “My Doll is Sick” set by the German firm of Caco, Lego nurse doll of today, Renwal Manufacturing Company’s hard plastic nurse from the 1950s – ’60s, and a small jointed all bisque doll house nurse from the 1920s – ’30s (Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop All You Can Bear).

Author – Linda Edward

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