Over the past 200 years, the world of dolls has offered women a myriad of opportunities not otherwise open to them. Dolls have provided an entrée into the male-dominated domain of industry and allowed many women a means of supporting themselves and their families. Dolls have also given a means of expression to many artistic and inventive women and offered new avenues for initiating social change.
In the area of cloth dolls, many collectors are familiar with the doll making ventures of Izannah Walker of Central Falls, RI who made her dolls from the early 1840s up until her death in 1888 and Martha Jenks Chase of Pawtucket, RI whose dolls were made from 1889 until the company closed in 1981. Both of these makers employed a process of molding fabric for their dolls’ heads.
In the early 1890s a young woman named Emma Adams began her doll making adventure. Emma was a trained artist, her sister Marietta had an education in business, together they created a cottage industry that would support themselves and provide work to many local seamstresses. After Emma’s death in 1890, Marietta continued the business, providing income and artistic expression to the women artists she hired to paint the doll’s faces.
Margarete Steiff of Giengen, Wurttemburg, Germany, had polio as a child and it was this experience that instilled in her a fierce determination for independence as an adult. In 1877 she opened a small seamstress shop and using felt scraps from her Uncle’s factory, she set about making women’s and children’s clothing. In 1880 she fashioned a pincushion shaped as an elephant. By 1893 toy making was her business. The company became a corporation in 1906, and is still in business today.
The late 19th century and early 20th century saw the birth of other female operated cloth doll businesses in the USA and abroad. Ella Louise Smith of Roanoke, Alabama, Gertrude Rollinson of Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Mary, Elizabeth, Marian & Ruth Tebbetts of Pennsylvania, Kathe Kruse of Germany, and Elena König Scavini (Lenci) made cloth dolls which are much coveted by today’s collectors.
Ella Louise Smith of Roanoke, Alabama began making her Alabama Indestructible dolls in 1897. They featured a cloth over plaster head on cloth bodies.
Many women’s groups used doll making as a means of funding charitable works. The Ladies Sewing Society of the Moravian Church Guild in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania began their doll making project to raise funds for the aid of wounded Civil War soldiers.
Julia Jones Beecher made her first cloth doll as a gift for her young niece but she quickly realized the humanitarian possibilities of her doll. With the aid of the sewing circle of the Park Congregational Church in Elmira, NY the missionary rag doll provided means of funding charity work from 1893 to 1910.
As the 20th century progressed women doll makers used cloth and other mediums such as composition, hard plastic and vinyl to bring their doll visions to life. Beatrice Berhman known to the world as Madame Alexander loved beauty and fashion design as well as dolls.
Georgene Averill was the driving force behind the dolls made bearing the Georgene Novelties and Madame Hendron names. She began selling dolls in 1913 but she is perhaps best remembered for her Wonder Walker doll created in 1922 which is credited as being the first Mama doll.
Mollye Goldman went from dressing little dolls purchased at the local 5 and dime to operating the largest manufacturer of doll clothing and dolls in the USA during the first half of the 20th century.
Illustrative artists such as Grace Putnam and Rose O’Neill would turn their creative minds to designing dolls such as the Bye-Lo Baby and the Kewpies.
Grace Putnam perceived a need in the marketplace for a realistic newborn type doll. George Borgfeldt’s decision to manufacture Grace’s dolls brought acclaim to both his company and Putnam as the Bye-lo Baby became known as the “Million Dollar Baby.”
Mary Hoyer launched her business in 1931 selling knit and crochet patterns for children’s clothing and doll clothes. Eventually she would have composition and hard plastic dolls manufactured to fit her fashions. Continuing in a well-established tradition, many women’s groups and service leagues used Mary Hoyer dolls and clothing made from Hoyer patterns as charity fundraisers during the 1940s, 50s & 60s.
In 1922 Jennie Adler Graves, opened a doll shop in her home in Somerville, Massachusetts. Relying on her sewing skills and sense of style Jennie began dressing and selling imported German dolls. In due time Graves brought out a little plastic doll of her own which eventually became known as the Ginny doll.
Ruth Handler seeing her own daughter at play realized that girls needed a personification of adult womanhood to role play and explore what it would be like to be a grown up. Handler’s model for Barbie was the Bild Lilli doll made in Germany. But where Lilli personified the objectification of women, Barbie empowered girls to live fulfilling lives. New generations of girls growing up in the second half of the 20th century saw no barriers to their dreams as they had already seen themselves in any role imaginable while playing with their Barbies.
In 1986 the American Girl dolls came into the marketplace and the hearts of young girls. The company was founded by Pleasant Rowland, an educator who conceived of the idea of the dolls as a means bringing history to life for young girls. She is quoted as stating “By choosing the right books and toys for your daughter at the right age and stage of her growth, you protect her development, nourish her spirit, and give her imagination wing.”
Today Women artists and businesspersons continue to bring vigorous and exciting doll designs to the world which is very good news for collectors!
Author – Linda Edward
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