Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

Ideal was a leader in the American Toy industry for most of the 20th century creating many of the dolls which are beloved by collectors today.

“She’s a Wonderful Doll, She’s Ideal” was the tagline used by the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company’s television commercials of the 1950s and 60s. This slogan was quintessential to the company’s goals for their doll lines.  From the beginning of Ideal’s foray into toy and doll making the company focused on making well-designed dolls from durable materials, using cutting-edge technologies to enhance the life-like nature of their dolls, while offering them at price points that made them affordable to the masses.

The story began in 1889 when 20-year-old Morris Michtom immigrated to the USA from Lithuania. He married a young New Yorker named Rose Katz and together the couple ran a candy store in Brooklyn. In about 1903 the Michtoms began making stuffed animals in their home and selling them in their store. These animals included a toy bear which Michtom called a Teddy Bear in an effort to tie-into the popular press story regarding Theodore Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot a baby bear. Their animals began selling so well that Morris approached the toy wholesale giant Butler Brothers for a loan and proceeded to open a full-time toy making business. On January 1, 1907 Michtom and a partner named Aaron Cone officially opened the Ideal Novelty Company. In 1912 this partnership ended and Michtom reorganized the business under the name the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. The company would remain a predominantly family run business through most of the 20th century until it was eventually broken up and sold, the doll division closed in 1986.

 Early Ideal dolls were made with heads of a heavy composition. The first dolls were based on the designs of the popular German dolls of the 1910s but were well sculpted and highly detailed such as their rendition of the Gebrüder Heubach Coquette shown on the left. Ideal soon began creating dolls based on licensing agreements with other companies such as the National Biscuit Company’s Uneeda Biscuit Kid, shown on the right.

In the very early 1910s Ideal began making dolls of a composition material. In later interviews Morris related that he had witnessed the distress of his own young daughter when her bisque headed doll was broken and he resolved to come up with a doll that would be unbreakable. This was a goal that many other companies had tried to achieve in the decades prior to this with dolls made of paper mache or early formulations of composition, as well as cloth dolls such as those made by Chase and Smith. But Michtom turned to the newly emerging field of American-made composition formulas which were being experimented with and came up with his own company sawdust and glue formula for use in making doll heads.

One of Ideal’s earliest dolls was based on from Richard Felton Outcault‘s comic strip character The Yellow Kid. The company would continue to make comic character dolls for many years. Shown here is Bonnie Braids from Dick Tracy. Bonnie had a Latex body which the company called Magic Skin, unfortunately this product has not stood the test of time and these doll bodies tend to deteriorate as can be seen in the photo.
In addition to comic character and product licenses Ideal obtained the rights to produce celebrity dolls such as the Teenaged Judy Garland shown here and others such as
Deanna Durbin.
By far Ideal’s most successful celebrity doll was Shirley Temple which was made as a play doll from 1934 into the 1980s. Later, porcelain dolls based on the Ideal design were made for the collector market.

The advent of WWI had an unexpected benefit to Ideal as well as the other American companies which were moving into the area of composition doll making as the lack of German made dolls created a greater demand for this newer style of doll. But it was the creativity in design combined with clever marketing enabled Ideal’s dolls to continue to command a strong presence in the marketplace even after the war ended. They were a company that looked forward, always trying out new materials and manufacturing techniques. In addition to composition dolls they created dolls of cloth, celluloid, hard rubber, Latex, hard plastic and vinyl. Their pioneering work with plastics enabled them to support the war effort during the WWII era in America as they turned over more than 50% of their factory space to making essential war-related products.

In 1951 Ideal produced an African-American doll named Sara Lee. This doll was the result of a joint project by Sara Lee Creech, Maxeda von Hesse and Sheila Burlingame to create an anthropologically correct Negro child (the term used by the group). This doll concept had the support of famous individuals such as opera singer Leontyne Price, shown holding the doll and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The company’s experimentation in materials and technology led to them bringing Blow-Molded Vinyl to the doll industry which allowed them to make large dolls that were light-weight and affordable. Miss Ideal shown on the left was available in 25- and 31-inch sizes. Saucy Playpal on the right was a 32-inch doll from the popular Playpal series of dolls.

Aside from the company’s interest in new products and technologies numerous patents were filed by Ideal employees or owners for design refinements for eye mechanisms and a variety of other improvements. Top independent doll designers such as Bernard Lipfert, Neil Estern, Vincent DeFillipo, and others were hired to make sculpts for Ideal, always responding to the changing needs and desires of the public.

When the American Character Doll Company closed in 1963 Ideal purchased the patent rights for the grow-hair mechanism originally used for Am. Character’s Tressy doll. With slight modifications this design was used for Ideal’s line of Beautiful Crissy dolls.

Throughout the 1970s Ideal continued to promote new concepts as well as offering reimaginings of their earlier successes and dolls aiming at the newly emerging collector market. Today the dolls made by Ideal are eagerly sought by collectors who agree the company’s ideals were indeed wonderful.

Ideal’s Thumbelina was a sweetly sculpted baby which was enhanced with a mechanism that made the baby wriggle like a newborn. The doll was so popular that it was reproduced in the early 21st century by the Ashton Drake company. This image shows a 1964 advertisement, a 1960s doll and the illustration which accompanied Ideal’s patent for the doll’s mechanism.

Bibliography

Linda Edward Doll Values, 13th Edition. New York: Page Publishing. 2017

Linda Edward Cloth Dolls From Ancient To Modern. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 1997

Judith Izen Collector’s Guide to Ideal Dolls. Paducah, Collector Books, 2005

Polly Judd Hard Plastic Dolls. Cumberland: Hobby House Press, 1985

Polly Judd Hard Plastic Dolls II. Cumberland: Hobby House Press, 1989

Polly Judd Cloth Dolls. Cumberland: Hobby House Press,1990

Ursula Mertz Collector’s Encyclopedia of Composition Dolls. Paducah: Collector Books, 1999Ursula Mertz Collector’s Encyclopedia of Composition Dolls Vol. II. Paducah: Collector Books, 2004

Author – Linda Edward

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