Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

Kimport Dolls (Kim – for McKim, Port – for import) introduced many Americans to doll collecting and did much to foster that hobby in the mid-20th century.

Ruby Short was born in 1891 in Millersburg, IL and grew up in Independence, MO. She was a natural artist, eventually studying at the New York School of Fine & Applied Arts (now called Parson’s, The New School for Design). Graduating in 1912, she returned to Independence and became the Supervisor of Drawing for the Independence School District, followed by teaching Manual Training at the High School in Kansas City, MO.

In 1917 Ruby married her former high school classmate Arthur McKim. McKim was working in public relations. In 1916 Ruby had won a contest sponsored by the Kansas City Star newspaper, to design a child’s quilt. This led her to other illustrative and quilt design work. Launching off these early successes the young couple started McKim Studios in 1918 and set about building a business selling Ruby’s quilt designs and providing quilting supplies. Arthur knew how to promote the product line and build customer relationships, while Ruby was the creative force behind the design offerings. Together they brought their personal code of ethics to everything they did, endeavoring to bring only products of the highest quality to their customers, while sharing their thoughtful and caring philosophy with their clientele. By the early 1930s they had a highly successful enterprise and Ruby’s 1931 publication One Hundred and One Patchwork Patterns is still one of the “go-to” guides within the quilting world.

Ruby Short McKim’s first commercial success came with a quilt design based on the characters of illustrator-author Thornton Burgess. Called Quaddy Quilties this pattern, designed for the Kansas City Star, is believed to be the first nationally syndicated quilt design series.

Looking to expand their business in the face of the economic depression, the McKims and their two daughters traveled to Europe to make new connections with suppliers and customers. While on that trip they visited the Paris Colonial Exhibition. The McKim girls Betty and Marilyn were enchanted with the lace and dolls exhibited at the expo. Marilyn began to collect dolls in world costumes which she found in the exhibition booths. Once home again in the USA Marilyn began to exhibit her doll collection at area libraries and churches. The response to her displays led the McKims to think about dolls a possible business opportunity. After two years of sourcing dolls of the highest quality the family opened the Kimport branch of the company to sell foreign dolls. By the mid-1930s the challenges of maintaining high quality and meeting demand with the quilting business became problematic and the family decided to focus all their efforts on the fledgling Kimport doll business.

The woolen clad cloth couple from New Brunswick, Canada were part of the Kimport line from the mid-1940s through the 50s. The catalog not only tells about the dolls themselves but attempts to share the “flavor” of the region through its description of the dolls.

As previously mentioned, the dolls carried by Kimport were all of high quality. The family searched diligently for makers who could provide correctly detailed representations of regional costuming and characters, using indigenous-made dolls whenever possible. The company used catalogs, illustrated by Ruby, to provide information about each doll they carried, not only as a means of underscoring sales, but also to provide educational information about the peoples represented by these dolls. The company’s Doll Talk and Foreign Folk Doll catalogs are today a valuable resource for collectors of mid-20th century world costume dolls. Over time, these catalogs also included doll accessories such as stands and advertised antique dolls for sale, making these booklets a history of the growth of the hobby of doll collecting.

Kimport sought to use indigenous-made dolls whenever possible. The doll on the left represents British Guiana and was made of natural rubber from the Balata tree, the doll on the right is an SFBJ-made bisque doll, marked Unis France 60, and would have been thought authentic at the time as it represented the French West Indies.
When indigenous-made dolls were not available from a particular area doll making businesses purchased dolls made elsewhere and then costumed them in costumes of the region represented. This German bisque celluloid shoulder-head doll is wearing an accurately detailed traditional Swedish outfit.

The McKims were forward-thinking people. They instituted many business practices that would lay the foundations for other doll businesses and collector groups coming after them. They offered an unconditional money-back guarantee on all doll purchases. They developed collection inventory pages for collectors’ use and sponsored doll shows around the country. They were also instrumental in supporting many doll-making small businesses and promoting doll artists.

In addition to selling world costume dolls Kimport Dolls also sold modern dolls from companies such as Steiff, Liberty of London and Käthe Kruse.
The McKims marketed their business in a number of ways which strengthened the growing hobby of doll collecting. They sold old and antique dolls of the day, provided reviews on new research books, exchanged information between customers, sponsored dolls shows around the country, and provided supplies for collectors. Ruby McKim is seen in this 1950s catalog offering a Lenci Boudoir doll for sum of $45.

When WWII disrupted the flow of foreign dolls coming into the USA, the McKims began offering American-made dolls from a variety of artists and cottage industries which they sold under their Kimcraft label. Kimport would continue to be a driving force in the doll world until it closed in 1985.

As importation of foreign dolls came to halt during WWII, Kimport turned their attention to American-made dolls. These dolls bore the Kimcraft label and included a series of dolls for each state. Captain Jenks, made for Kimport by Nelly Myer was the state doll for Michigan.
Other Kimcraft dolls provided an outlet for individual doll artists to showcase and sell their work. This 6.75″ tall wooden doll was made by Carolyn John of Moorestown, NJ during the 1940s.
 Kimport would continue to promote the work of doll artists right up until their closing in 1985. This wax Gibson Girl was made by Sheila Wallace for Kimport in February of 1985.

Everything the McKims did with their businesses was aimed at not only providing income for themselves and the small businesses they networked with, but also creating a sense of community within the doll collecting world and providing an opportunity for collectors in the USA to get to know the people of other parts of the world, leading to understanding and empathy. Happily, the goals espoused by this family of doll peddlers still exist in the world today as collectors use the common bond of our hobby to connect with others and bring joy to an often-troubled world, thanks in part to the trail that Kimport Dolls helped to blaze.

Author – Linda Edward

Bibliography

Susan Hedrick & Vilma Matchette World Colors. Grantsville: Hobby House Press Inc., 1997

Kimport Doll Talk and Foreign Folk Dolls catalogs. Various issues from 1937 through 1966

McKim Studios

Loretta Nardone Kimport Dolls from the Whole Wide World. Fall 2015 edition of Doll News magazine.

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