Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

A tiny treat such as this 4″ all-bisque doll in her original wicker basket adorned with extra pieces of clothing would certainly have been a harbinger of good fortune to the child of the Belle Époque. Doll courtesy of Blithewold Mansion, Garden and Arboretum.

In 46 BC Julius Caesar instituted his Julian calendar and moved New Year’s Day from March to the Kalends of Ianuarius (January 1st). Celebrations of the new year included decorating the home with laurel branches and giving gifts of figs, dates and honey. In France the Jour des Etrennes (New Year’s Day) has been marked from Medieval times as a joyous festival to bid adieu to the closing year and look forward to bright expectations for the new year.

In fact, the custom of celebrating the start of a new year with the giving of gifts to wish good fortune for the coming months has been practiced by many civilizations. Gifts of food and drink or symbolic gifts to offer wishes of strength or prosperity were commonly exchanged. Through the centuries this concept has evolved and today most seasonal gift giving is associated with Christmas but during France’s Belle Époque period Etrennes gift suggestions included many exceptional toys.

The cover of the Louvre store’s Etrennes catalog of 1897 is flanked on either side by pages from its 1886 catalog. 

What could be more auspicious than celebrating the start of a brand-new year by giving or receiving a fabulous new doll or doll accessory?! In the second half of the 19th century and into the early 20th the French custom of giving Etrennes gifts saw some of most enticing doll and doll accessory sets ever offered the public. Today these precious little packages thrill hearts of modern collectors.

The fashionable French department stores and toy shops made good use of the custom of giving Etrennes gifts, offering an ever-increasing number of special boxed or carded sets sure to please any child of the last half of the 19th century.

 On left: A ca. 1890 set sold by Au Louvre is absolutely mouth-watering in its details (Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Dollcollect, antique & elusive Dolls). On right: Another lovely set by Jumeau in its original presentation box (Photo courtesy of Withington Auctions).

A child offering a card to their Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, etc., wishing the recipient good luck in the coming year would often be responded to with a delightful gift in the form of a toy or candy container.

Candy containers in all sorts of whimsical shapes were available for use as Etrennes gifts. Including those which incorporated doll heads such as this pair of containers featuring heads by the German firm of Gebrüder Heubach. Photo courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Precious Toys.

France was already well known for its elaborate dolls, doll accessories, and toys and in the competition during the holiday season toy retailers sought to outshine all others with their increasingly over-the-top offerings. Many of these were comprised of boxed sets of dolls, some with wardrobes or furnishings, or sets of accessories for dolls’ use.

Toiletry sets for dolly’s use are particularly enchanting accessories for both Poupées and Bébés. Photos courtesy of Ruby Lanes shops Victoriental and
When Dreams Come True Doll-Shop.
Dolls sold as Etrennes gifts were not exclusively manufactured in France. German dolls such as this example were packaged for the French market. The doll is 10″ tall and is marked DEP, she has a bisque socket-head and a jointed composition body. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions.
Doll trunk sets were not solely available as Etrennes gifts, many American retailers offered these delights through their stores and catalogs. These trunk sets both feature German made dolls, the trunk on the right bears an FAO Schwarz sticker on the bottom. Photo on left courtesy of Ruby Lane shop Signature Dolls.

Catalogs from shops such as Printemps, Samaritaine, Au Nain Bleu, Au Bon Marché, and numerous others featured complete sets of doll dishes, furniture, kitchen wares, laundry implements, and dolls with wardrobes.

When found intact in their original packaging these fabulous little sets would be welcomed by any doll. This author has always tried to start the new year off right, i.e. by getting a new piece for my collection, and I highly recommend the practice!

Fabulous presentations such as the doll painting set and the sewing set shown here are still a perfect way to celebrate the beginning of a brand-new year. Photos courtesy of Ruby Lane shops The Antique Carousel and Au Nain Bleu II.

Author – Linda Edward

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