“When you loved dolls and studied them, you started to love all kinds of people too, because you saw the virtue in their expressions, how carefully they had been sculpted, the parts contrived to create the triumph of this or that remarkable face.” Anne Rice, Taltos.
Rice, herself once a doll collector of long standing, understood that dolls are the self-portraits of the people who make them. For this reason alone, every doll is beautiful. Just as there are many definitions of beauty among humans, so there are many definitions of beauty among dolls. For those who want to read more of the diverse definitions of beauty among all people, look up Umberto Eco’s wonderful nonfiction book, On Beauty.
Sometimes, the doll itself is not outwardly beautiful, but the story behind her creation is. Think of Bangwell Putt, the 18th-century faceless rag doll, seemingly primitive and crude, that belonged to a blind little girl named Clarissa. Bangwell was the well-loved life companion to Clarissa, and she still exists today. She can be seen in the photo on the right.
Handmade dolls of cloth often reflect the cultures of their creators. They are well loved and dressed in homespun and bits and pieces of materials at hand. One of the finest examples of such dolls is the Deborah Neff collection of black dolls, currently on display at the Figge Museum of Art, Davenport, IA.
Other folk dolls and emergent dolls made from materials at hand endear themselves to collectors because they are a tribute to human creativity and imagination. Whose heart wouldn’t melt at the thought of the child who made the doll from an old shoe during the 19th century?
Sometimes, a broken doll evokes poignant emotions, like Beth’s pathetic doll Joanna from Little Women. Artist Frida Kahlo collected and repaired broken dolls because her many health challenges and surgeries made her feel a sympathy for them; she often felt like a broken doll herself. Many collectors like to collect battered, tattered dolls in played with condition because their “patina of play” reminds their owners that a child once loved and cherished them. Sometimes, to appreciate dolls, we have to remember the philosophy of Disney’s Toy Story films; dolls are toys meant to be loved by children.
Ethnic dolls and national costumed dolls convey what beauty means in their various cultures. Without these dolls, we would know nothing about other people around the world and how they see themselves. Even tourist dolls are goodwill ambassadors, and many a doll collection began with the message that if dolls from around the world can live together peacefully in a collector’s cabinet, so can we. The most famous international doll collection of this type was probably that of Samuel Pryor, former Vice President of Pan Am, who collected dolls all over the world in his travels. An interesting bit of trivia is that Pryor’s best friend, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, collected automatons, which are, after all, mechanical dolls.
While we have Barbie and all her fantastic fashions and make-overs, and glossy china heads, stately Parians, and flirtatious bébés and poupées sought after by sophisticated collectors around the world, let’s not forget that all dolls are part of human history. Each doll and doll maker has inspired the generation that comes after, and as with people, every doll is beautiful, in her own way.
About the Guest Blog Author: Ellen Tsagaris has collected dolls since she was three years old. She has made dolls, priced dolls, repaired, dressed, and studied dolls. Besides dolls, she has studied other antiques and collectibles at museums, antiques shows, auctions, and flea markets since she was in grade school. She has set up at craft shows and presented papers on dolls and their history at the Midwest Modern Language Association. She is the author of several articles on dolls that have appeared in Doll Reader, National Doll World, Doll Designs, International Doll World, Hope and Glory, Doll News, Adventures, and The Western Doll Collector. She is the author of two books about dolls, Bibliography of Doll and Toy Sources and With Love from Tin Lizzie; A History of Metal Heads, Metal Dolls, Mechanical Dolls, and Automatons. An active blogger, she features two blogs about dolls, Dr. E’s Doll Museum, and Doll Museum. She lectures on dolls for various organizations and has displayed part of her collection in museums.
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