In 1853 Commodore Mathew Perry led a US Naval expedition to Japan. The goal of the expedition was to establish a trade agreement with Japan. For over 200 years Japan had maintained a policy of isolating itself from world-wide trade, to avoid the colonial and religious influences of European (and eventually American) powers. The US and the countries that followed this move to establish trade with Japan were looking for foreign markets for their own goods, but the unanticipated result was a stream of products coming from Japan into the world market. Some of these Japanese products brought their own aesthetic and techniques to the attention of the world, while others emulated products from other countries. The extremely low wages paid to Japanese workers allowed Japanese products to be sold below the cost of goods from other countries. By the 1870s Japanese porcelain goods were being exported to the USA in vast quantities. These were primarily decorative items and tablewares.
In 1891 The McKinley Tariff Act came into effect requiring all goods imported into the US to be marked with their country of origin. Goods coming in from Japan between 1891 and 1921 were marked “Nippon” (which is the Japanese name for their country). In the early 1910s some dolls and toys tailored to an American market began to be exported from Japan. Early attempts at Western style dolls were plagued with design and durability problems. It was not really until WWI cut off the traditional European doll supply that Japan began exporting large numbers of dolls and toys to the US.
In the pre-war years of this new market European (primarily German) artisans were invited to teach the Japanese companies the various parts of the processes necessary to manufacture dolls and toys for the West, and American wholesalers sent over representatives to help refine the products as well.
When WWI began the USA was still marketing German-made dolls. American companies had large stocks of product sitting in storage in their German facilities or in stock within the US. But as the war years continued these supplies ran low or were looked on with disfavor by American consumers. The wholesaler Louis Wolfe & Co. tried in a 1915 editorial in Playthings magazine to argue that American companies needed the public to support the continued purchase of German dolls stating that their assembling plant in Sonnenberg was carrying a large inventory which needed to be sold to retailers for the company’s survival. But even Wolf could see the handwriting on the wall and eventually turned to Japanese made dolls to keep the customer satisfied. By 1915 George Borgfeldt was promoting what he saw as a need for Japanese made playthings. Wholesalers such as Haber Brothers, Louis Wolf & Co, George Borgfeldt, Foulds & Freure Inc., and many others went on to buy dolls from Japan to fill the needs of American children.
Among the earliest of the Japanese companies to make bisque dolls for America was the firm of Morimura Brothers. This company had its origins in the mid-18th century when the family came to Edo (Tokyo) and started a business manufacturing saddles and harnesses. By 1887 they were manufacturing porcelain goods. The family that owned the business saw the potential in the new world market for their company’s products and sent a son to university to learn English as they saw this as a business advantage for dealing with the West. They sent to America for assistance in designing and making the types of products American consumers would be pleased with. In June of 1915 they announced that their doll and toys department had been greatly enlarged.
In 1916 Morimura opened a new factory solely for making dolls and toys. They produced all-bisque dolls, bisque socket and shoulder head dolls and celluloid dolls. Their line of “Full Jointed Dolls” were open mouth dolly faced dolls made in a wide range of sizes. These socket head dolls were designated as mold number 1.
All-bisque dolls by Morimura included Queue San Baby which was patented by Hikozo Araki in February of 1916. Morimura owned the rights to the doll. In later years after Morimura stopped making dolls the German companies would begin producing Queue San babies in a reverse of the usual pattern of emulation. The Queue San babies made by Morimura had a sticker on them which included the marking REG. US PAT OFF.
Morimura was writing huge orders and shipping vast numbers of dolls to the US by 1918. So much so that in 1918 and 1919 Morimura actually contracted to buy the entire production of the Bester Doll Co. in America to help fill their orders for the seasons. When the war came to an end, European doll manufacturers began to produce again and try to regain a foothold in the industry but bad feelings lingered for some time after the war. Japanese manufacturers were able to hold onto a piece of the American market through the end of the teens and into 1920 when world opinion again began to shift. The state of the Japanese worker and the low wage paid them combined with the return of traditional German and French dolls and the strength of the American doll manufacturing companies developed during the war years all came together the put an end to the dominance of the Japanese made dolls in America. In 1921 Morimura curtailed its doll making and in January of 1922 the company sold its assets to another company.
This general pattern of development, rise and wane would be repeated by most of the other Japanese companies that made dolls for the USA during World War I. Japanese dolls and toys would continue to hold a marginal place in the American market up until the advent of WWII but were generally low-end offerings. Today these dolls marked “Nippon” are recognized for their variety of designs, their place in world history and their importance in the ongoing story of antique dolls.
Author – Linda Edward
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