Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

The doll on the left was made in Germany by Kling but her authentically detailed costume was likely added to her in Sweden. The doll on the right is the product of the Société Francaise de Fabrication de Bébés & Jouets (SFBJ) to be sold to visitors of the French West Indian island of Martinique.

World costume dolls have long served to bring a world of diversity and beauty into the lives of tourists, collectors, students, and historians.

In the days before easy travel and the world wide web the best means of studying foreign cultures, great works art, and technology was to visit the famed capitols of Europe, Asia and Africa. Young men returning from “the grand tour” would have a vastly expanded knowledge base and be ready to take a leadership role in society.

By the later 19th century advances in steam-powered modes of travel, and the burgeoning middle and upper classes of American society opened these educational experiences to a wider group. Travel to Europe became a rite of passage and was thought to finish one’s preparation for modern society, and if a daughter of the household should happen to attract the interest of marriageable men of title so much the better.

Many of those traveling abroad sought to bring home keepsakes of the places they visited. In the pre-amateur photographer eras one of the easiest ways to bring home examples of the peoples of the wide world was through collecting regional costume dolls.

Early 20th century tourists brought home dolls such as these as remembrances of their travels. The dolls on the left are costumed in the traditional style of the Campagna region of Italy, the black & white photo of a similar pair shown with them is from a book entitled Peeps At The World’s Dolls, published in 1922. The doll on the right is a Linden wood doll made in Switzerland.

Dolls were also brought home to be used as educational tools. Regional costume doll collections were often displayed in schools and museums as a visual aid to world study and used as the basis for charity fund raising events, a practice that continues to this day.

In fact there are instances of dolls who themselves made world tours. One of the most famous of these is an American rag doll named Miss Columbia. During the 1890s Mrs. E. R. Horton of Boston, Massachusetts sent Miss Columbia on a Grand Tour of her own. This doll was greeted by enthusiastic crowds at teas and other special exhibits every place she visited and raised a great deal of money for various children’s charities from the ticket price for these events. Along the way the doll acquired a sizable collection of her own in tokens and gifts from her various hosts. Miss Columbia and her souvenirs now reside at the Wenham Museum in Massachusetts.

From the 1930s to 50s companies such as Kimport and Elsie Clark Krug’s business supplied world costume dolls, often indigenously made at affordable prices. The doll on the left is an all leather doll made and sold in French Morocco. The doll on the right is costumed in the style of Algeria.

In addition to the reasons these dolls were collected we must also consider why world costume dolls were created in the first place. Certainly, there was a commercial advantage to selling dolls but beyond that is the social significance of creating dolls. Dolls could act as ambassadors of good will and friendship. Dolls are the idealized image of the peoples they represent. In their creation a culture was saying “this is who we are, these are our traditions and values. We want you to know us, understand us and appreciate us.”

Today these dolls have gained a greater historical significance than was probably ever imagined at the time of their creation. As the western T shirt and jeans has become the uniform of the world regional costume dolls have become 3-dimensional historic costume documents. This is especially true with indigenously made or costumed dolls. Just as in today’s market travel souvenir dolls sold in a variety of countries can be found having been made in China so it was with German-made dolls of the turn of the 20th century. Many German dolls were dressed in world costumes to be sold to a wide marketplace but these costumes were often more fanciful than factual in their components.

The doll on the left was purchased by an American traveler in the early 20th century. The doll is of German manufacture but her costume, complete with its traditional Kokoshnik headpiece represents the dress of a Russian bride. The bisque doll on the right was made in Russia.

However other doll costuming companies throughout Europe bought German dolls and then dressed them in faithful renditions of human regional garb. Still other companies not only costumed but actually made their dolls in the country or provinces they represented. These are rich in detail and social history.

Today the area of world costume dolls provides a firsthand glimpse into a vanished world, continuing to fascinate, educate and delight the viewer, bringing the world home to collectors.

The SFBJ doll on the left wears a faithful rendition of the costume of Alsace Lorraine despite the fact that she is only 4.5″ tall. The doll on the right is also French and is typical of the dolls made to represent the fishmongers of Cherbourg.


Author – Linda Edward

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