A sweet, huggable baby doll satisfies the need to nurture that is inborn in all humans. Baby dolls hold a well-established place in the nurseries of the past, present and undoubtedly the future. But in the world of doll making and collecting the focus has shifted through the decades focusing on child dolls, lady dolls, and baby dolls in a rhythmic flow as consumer and manufacturer interests have demanded.
This cycle of changing concepts and popularity played out in the story of baby dolls. In the early decades of the 20th century baby dolls were returning to prominence in the marketplace. With the character doll movement of the 1910s doll makers became enthralled with the wide range of expression and realism that could be created in doll features. Of course, there were other forays into the area of baby doll making in earlier decades. Big manufacturers of the 19th century tried making dolls to depict babies from materials such as china, paper mache and wax. Cottage industry manufacturers made some delightful baby dolls of cloth, but by and large these were scattered or highly specialized products in the world toy market. It was the character babies of the 1910s and 20s that really brought the baby doll to prominence. Companies such as Gebrüder Heubach, Hertel & Schwab, Kämmer & Reinhardt, and a myriad of others all produced character baby dolls.
One of the biggest design concepts for these dolls was the development of the “bent-limb” baby doll body which clearly identified these dolls as depicting babies. Other special additions included the use of mechanisms such as flirty eyes, wobble tongues, and cry voices to enhance their desirability.
Although interesting to today’s collectors these dolls with their single expression of mood were less popular with the children of the era. Within a few years the market for character dolls was waning and more expression-neutral dolls came back into vogue. These offered a greater scope for a child’s imagination as they could see any expression they wished in their doll’s face.
But by the 1920s baby dolls began to change to sweeter, more simple designs depicting newborns. These are the dolls which today’s collector refers to as “infant” dolls. In the early 1920s an American artist named Grace Putnam was developing a design for a true infant style of doll. It’s interesting to consider that in an industry which had so recently been in favor of character dolls, that by the time Putnam was looking to have her doll manufactured most big companies were reluctant to do so because they thought her baby doll was too realistically molded.
George Borgfeldt was not frightened off by Putnam’s design and in 1924 contracted to have the dolls made commercially. The buying public fell in love with the new Bye-Lo baby. The doll featured the not quite fully open eyes of a newborn, a flatter face and included Putnam’s design for a cloth infant body which echoed the shape of a new-born baby’s body. During the 1929 Christmas season, people stood in line hoping to be able to purchase the doll on their child’s wish list.
Since the 1940s baby dolls have continued to cycle in and out of popularity and back again, but the baby doll design trends created in the early 20th century continue to stand as the foundation for most baby dolls that have come thereafter.
As we have seen many times throughout history a popular product draws imitation and soon the shelves of toys shops and catalog pages were brimming with infant dolls. Clearly these companies were after the market being dominated by the Bye-Lo Baby but their offerings were less extreme in their sculpts than the Bye-Lo.
These infant dolls remained popular with the public for many years and transitioned from bisque headed and all bisque dolls to composition and celluloid before finally giving way to a new generation of popular child dolls.
Author – Linda Edward
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