As the 19th century was drawing to a close the world saw the aesthetic movement and the arts and crafts movement grow and take shape. The aesthetic movement sought to bring beauty into everyday life and the arts & crafts philosophy sought to bring art into utilitarian objects of daily life. Both of these philosophies paved the way for the china half dolls of the period which are so widely collected today.
Many of these lovely objects adorned the dressing table in M’lady’s bedroom. The use of small decorative trinket boxes was not new to the turn of the 20th century, in fact porcelain boxes were often offered as Fairings in mid and 3rd quarter 19th century Britain. These trinket boxes were predominately of German manufacture and are quite collectible in their own right today.
Pincushions had also enjoyed long use, serving in the boudoir for keeping dressing pins and in the sewing room for the keeping of common pins and needles. Many of the ladies’ periodicals of the latter half of the 19th century included instructions for making all sorts of “notion nanny” dolls, including those that served as pin cushions. Early versions were made using the china and bisque dolls of the day.
By 1900 a number of German porcelain factories, many of which also made dolls of china and bisque, were creating china half dolls for use as pincushion tops, clothing brushes as well was making perfume bottles and dresser boxes in the form of elegant ladies. These would continue to be immensely popular right into the early 1930s.
The German companies that produced most of these dolls advertised them as “busts,” “tea busts,” or “dresser dolls.” Today collectors generally refer to them as “Half-dolls.” German companies such as Dressel & Kister of Passau, W. Geobel Porzellanfabrik of Oeslau, Karl Schneider of Grafenthal, Galluba & Hoffman of Illmenau, Schäfer & Vater of Volkstedt-Rudolstadt, Conta & Boehme of Pössneck and many others, produced hundreds of various models of these half-dolls and offered many models in a range of sizes. Other counties also manufactured these items including England, France, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the USA, and Japan.
The porcelain manufacturers that made the half dolls sold them not only through retailers but sold them wholesale to smaller companies who made them up into finished items such as the aforementioned tea cozies and pincushions, as well as dresser sets, clothing brushes and powder puffs. The public obviously enjoyed these little beauties and they were used on items throughout the home adorning telephone covers, boudoir lamps, bridge pencils, parasol handles, egg cosies, and similar novelties. Still others were sold simply as half-dolls to be made up into useful items at home.
As fashion trends changed so did the design of these busts. They can be found depicting ladies, children and even animals. Apart from the china examples they were also produced in bisque, wax, chalk ware, composition, paper-mache, metal, and celluloid.
As in most areas of doll collecting points to consider when collecting half dolls are detail, quality and rarity. These dolls were available in a wide range of qualities going from very heavy, low quality porcelain or other materials and “slap-dash” painting to extremely high quality with delicate porcelain and artistic painting. The low end of the price scale is primarily dolls with both arms molded in one with the torso (rare characters are the exception to this), next are dolls with one or both arms molded away and back to the torso, and dolls with both arms molded away from the body tend to be at the higher end of the price scale. There are also rarities such as exotic sculpts like the medieval-style dolls, those depicting stars of the stage and comic characters, or dolls with applied details such as fired on flowers, animals, or accessories which were added after the figure was molded. All of these considerations add to the fun of hunting for new examples for our collections.
These lovely little sculptures remind us of a time with even the most utilitarian items could afford an opportunity to bring beauty into everyday life and they continue to do so in modern collections.
Linda Edward Doll Values, 13th Edition. New York: Page Publishing. 2017
Jurgen and Marianne Cieslik German Doll Encyclopedia. Cumberland: Hobby House Press, 1985
Shona & Marc Lorrin The Half-Doll with related items, makers and values, Vol 1. Jenks: self-published, 1999 Norma Werner & Frieda MarionThe Collectors Encyclopedia of Half Dolls. Paducah, Collector Books, 1979
Author – Linda Edward
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