Martha Jencks Chase of Pawtucket, RI came from a family with deep roots in New England history. Her ancestor Josef Jencks Jr. arrived in America as a colonist from England in 1647 and in 1671 founded the city of Pawtucket, MA. After a series of border changes Pawtucket became part of the state of RI in 1862. Martha’s family were active in their community through the generations, responding to a high sense of responsibility for social activism. These inherited and learned traits would influence Martha Jencks Chase and her doll making career.
Martha was born on February 12,1851 to Dr. James L Wheaton and Anna Maria Jencks. She was married twice, her first husband was William White whom she wed on September 13, 1870. Unfortunately, William died of consumption three months after their marriage. In 1873 she married a young doctor named Julian A. Chase, who had studied under her father. Together they would raise a family including 2 sons and 3 daughters, and an additional set of twins that died at a young age.
A woman of her times, Martha found herself concerned with the issues of safety and health in the nursery. With both her father and her second husband being doctors, she was well acquainted with the theories connecting germs with disease. In watching her own daughters at play with the china and bisque dolls popular at that time she became increasingly unhappy with their designs. She felt they were too heavy for little hands to hold and worried about their breakable heads and uncleanable bodies. She yearned for a doll that would be soft and cuddly, indestructible and washable.
Oral tradition holds that in about 1876 Mattie (as Martha was called by family and friends) decided to try her hand at making a rag doll as a Christmas gift for her daughter Bessie. She had always been a good seamstress and was described as being “ingenious at making all sorts of toys and favors” for the various parties held for her children.
After this first rag doll Martha went on to make numerous dolls using varying refinements until she came up with a childlike doll that she really liked. Again, oral tradition held that Martha herself had played with an Izannah Walker doll as a child, a tale that is quite likely true as it is known that Martha’s mother was a friend of Walker. The Chase doll’s construction was heavily influenced by the dolls made by Walker, but Martha’s dolls looked more like the “modern” children of her day.
As is so often the case Martha began making dolls for family and friends and was soon being asked by neighbors and acquaintances for them. Then one fateful day in 1891 Martha brought one of her dolls into the Jordan Marsh store in Boston looking for a pair of shoes for it. The toy buyer for the store saw the doll and asked where she had gotten the doll whereupon Chase announced that she had made it. By the time she left the store she not only had shoes for her doll but an order of dolls for the store. She went home and officially began the Chase Doll Co. The company began operation in a small building behind her Park Place home, then expanded into the family’s garage. Out of support for his wife (or possibly just to get his garage back) Julian Chase soon built Martha a workshop behind their home which became known as The Doll House.
Much of the sewing of the doll’s arms, legs, and bodies was done by out workers, the parts were then returned to the Doll House to be assembled and painted. All of the faces were painted there in the shop by two or three specially trained artists. Some of which were graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design. Martha personally supervised the finishing of each doll.
Despite the wording of the first mark used on her dolls which included the words “patent applied for” Martha Chase never patented her doll making process. The heads of her dolls were made by pressing stockinette sized with starch and/or glue, into plaster molds. The stockinette was then sized again on the inside and pressed into the depressions at areas like the nose and chin. This produced a cloth mask type face.
Once dry, the faces were removed from the molds and fitted over a round base. This base was constructed from a 1/2-inch square stick that was covered with tightly packed excelsior and cotton batting, held in place by tightly wound threads. The mask face fit over this ball and was sewn to another piece of stockinette which formed the back of the head. This produced a very distinctive baseball type seam on the head. This is one of the identifying characteristics of Chase dolls.
The doll’s bodies were made of heavy white cotton cloth. The arms had four fingers indicated by stitching, the fingers were all stuffed individually, the thumbs were separately applied. The arms and legs had sewn jointed at the elbows and knees. The finished arms and legs were hung on wires and dipped into pots of hot glue and then reshaped a bit. When dry the limbs were sewn to the bodies in a manner which created shoulder and hip joints. The heads had separately applied ears. The heads, neck, arms, and legs were then brushed with another coating of glue and given 2 coats of zinc-based oil paint.
The eyes were painted blue or brown with white highlights, the lashes are heavily painted with a multitude of strokes. The hair was painted in a blonde color with a heavy impasto style of brush stroke, creating a texturized effect, sometimes this was gone over with a comb to enhance the look. Brown hair was available as a special order. Once the final detail painting of the dolls was finished all of the painted surfaces received a coat of varnish to seal them and allow them to be washed. African American children were also available, these dolls had wool wigs. Advertising from 1913 lists the dolls as available in 6 sizes; Size 0 was 12″ tall, size 1 – 16″, size 2- 20″, size 3 – 24″, size 4 – 27″, size 5 – 30″. They sold for between $2.40 for the 12″ up to $7.50 for the 30″.
Chase dolls were sold both undressed and dressed. Original clothing on Chase dolls tends to be simple in design, more like the clothing actually worn by middle class American children than the clothing found on the imported dolls of the day. Fabrics are generally cotton or woolens, narrow lace trim was often used. The shoes were commercially made. The hands and feet were given an additional coat of paint. The torso was covered with pink or white Princess sateen which looks a lot like a slip cover. (another style was eventually offered which had an all-over painted surface to make the doll “tub washable.”)
In addition to her child dolls, in approximately 1905 Chase began to produce character dolls. She made a set of dolls depicting characters from Alice in Wonderland, a set of the characters from the stories by Joel Chandler Harris, and a set of Dickensian characters as well. Another character doll she produced was George Washington. He stood 25 inches tall and was very well detailed including a cloth braided queue at the back of his head. All of these character dolls were advertised until about 1923.
Chase retailed her dolls by mail order, advertising them in such magazines as the Ladies Home Journal and Vogue. Her dolls were sold at stores such as Best & Co., Wannamaker’s, FAO Schwarz, Macy’s, White’s, and Marshall Fields. Her dolls were exported all over the world.
In 1910 Martha received a letter from Mrs. Lauder Sutherland, the principal of the Training School for Nurses at the Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. Mrs. Sutherland wondered if Chase could make an adult sized doll that could be used in nurse’s training. As always Martha rose to the challenge. Experimental models are tested at Memorial Hospital in Pawtucket, RI and in 1911 the first Hospital Mannequin was sent to Hartford. In 1914 the hospital mannequins were exhibited at the St. Louis Nursing Convention and were afterwards mentioned and advertised in varying nursing magazines. They would eventually become The Chase Doll Company’s most popular product. Generations of nurses and nurse’s aides trained using manikins often referred to as “Miss Chase.”
Martha’s daughter Ana and grandson Robert would eventually head the company she founded and would continue to make play dolls and hospital dolls right up until the company closed its doors in 1981. The dolls born out of Martha’s heart and her desire to make a cuddly and safe toy provided generations of children with playthings and medical professionals with better training aids. A great accomplishment for Chase and a big mission for a humble rag doll!
Author – Linda Edward
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