Hello Dolly

Wooden doll, Uganda (1965), Michigan State University Museum-Photo by cjverb

Happy Friday! It’s gift-giving season and today we’re taking a closer look at one of the most popular and oldest of children’s gifts, the doll. Dolls are prevalent across our many cultures, and they’ve been made of every material imaginable including wood, clay, bone, porcelain, wax, metal, paper, cloth, dried corn husks, plastic and so much more.

Archaeologists have unearthed dolls from ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek dig sites. Inuit dolls excavated in Canada, date back a thousand years.  However, it wasn’t until the 15th century, when dolls became big business.  In 1413, dochenmacher (doll makers) were first noted as a profession in Nürnberg, Germany. By the 16th century, doll manufacturing, particularly fashion dolls (think: fancy clothes), flourished among the upper classes of Germany and France.

Porcelain doll (c1860), Michigan State University Museum-Photo by cjverb

In the 19th century, paper dolls were popular, but ingenious entrepreneurs also crafted dolls into walking, talking toys.  In 1890, Thomas Edison created a 22-inch doll that had a mini phonograph inside. Turn the crank located on the doll’s back, and it would recite a nursery rhyme.  A “talking” toy was an extraordinary feature for its time and the precursor to the pull-string toys (“There’s a snake in my boot!”) and chatty action figures (“To infinity and beyond!”) we have today.  Unfortunately, the high price and penchant to break down, caused Edison’s talking doll to become a commercial flop. I’m guessing it didn’t help that the screechy voice recordings are reminiscent of fingernails on a chalkboard. Click on Edison’s talking doll link if you dare to listen.

Cat Woman, Batman & Robin-Photo by Erika Wittlieb, Pixabay

During the first half of the 20th century, baby dolls like diaper-wetting Betsy Wetsy were popular. (Check out this blast from the past, Betsy Wetsy commercial).  Baby dolls, however, lost their charm when sophisticated and more importantly, potty-trained Barbie made her debut in 1959. Male dolls such as G. I. Joe (1964) and a host of action figures gained popularity in the 1960s.  The 1980s brought us Cabbage Patch fever, and today we have the pricy American Girl dolls. Parents can purchase matching outfits and book exclusive hotel packages that cater to both child and doll (think: doll-sized bed with matching pjs and slippers). Yikes!

Growing up I played with the usual baby dolls (thankfully no diaper-wetting ones!) and Barbies, but I had a tendency to brush them bald. They ended up looking a lot like the doll head in Sid’s bedroom in Toy Story. One Christmas I was thrilled to find a Velvet doll under our tree.  Sporting a thick, sturdy ponytail, good old Velvet was made to withstand my exuberant hairstyling (click on link for yet another retro commercial!) No more creepy bald dolls. It was the perfect gift. Have a great weekend!

Fun Dolled Up Facts:  In some cultures, dolls are not playthings.  Following are a few examples…

  • Ancient Egyptians buried their dead with shabti. These small figurines were responsible for working the fields so their master could relax and enjoy the fruits of the afterlife.
  • In Japan, the Hina Matsuri (doll festival) occurs annually on March 3rd to celebrate the health and happiness of Japanese girls. Dolls representing the royal family are displayed on an altar and offerings of food, typically mochi, are made.
  • A Ndebele man (parts of Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe), proposes marriage by leaving a Linga Koba doll on the doorstep of the woman he loves.
  • Newly engaged Zulu girls wear necklaces sporting a small fertility doll. Once married, the doll is given a special place inside the bride’s new home. Eventually, she will give the doll to her daughter or granddaughter.
  • Inuit hunters mounted small dolls on their boats for luck.
  • Kachina dolls help the Hopi people communicate with the spirit world.
  • The infamous voodoo doll is used to exact revenge on one’s enemies.



British Library.com

Canadian Museum of History









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