Organized Doll Collecting Traces Roots to the 18th Century
By Laurie McGill
While dolls have been found in several ancient civilizations—from simple, small figures made of wood and clay found in Egyptian tombs from 2000 B.C. to the dolls of clay, marble and alabaster have been found in children’s graves of ancient Greece and Rome and the dolls referred to in some written sources from the early European Middle Ages—the art or pastime of collecting dolls can be traced to the 18th century.
The earliest doll-makers carved dolls out of wood and some even attempted to provide the toys with moveable limbs. Germany and France were early centers of European doll manufacture. Since the fifteenth century, both toy dolls and fashion dolls—dolls attired in the latest costumes and coiffures and commissioned so that European courts could follow fashionable trends—were produced in Paris. Several oil paintings of the early seventeenth century depict noble children playing with wooden dolls dressed in finery. A colored drawing in the British Museum in London of 1585 shows an Indian girl with a European doll, presumably taken to America by the early English settlers.
Dolls made before approximately 1930 are classified as antiques. Dolls after that period are commonly classified as vintage, collectible or modern.
But the art or pastime of collecting dolls can be traced to the 18th century. Two of the earliest documented collectors were Henri d’Allemagne (best remembered for his use of the Maury catalogues depicting Napoleonic-era dolls) and Jacques Seligmann, a contemporary of d’Allemagne, who also collected extensively.
In the early part of the 20th century, several American doll collectors/authors began to use dolls as teaching tools. This group consisted of Laura Starr, Annie Alden Fields and Marie Koenig. Laura Starr wrote one of the earliest American doll books (The Doll Book) in 1908, http://www.archive.org/stream/dollbook00starrich.
Laura Starr’s doll collection formed an impressive part of Samuel Pryor’s International Doll Library Foundation, which eventually went nearly intact to The Museum of the City of New York, http://www.mcny.org/museum-collections/new-york-toy-collection.html. Pryor, vice president of Pan-American Airlines, did not buy dolls; he bought collections—such as Laura Starr’s, Lila Singsen’s and the early author of doll research books, Janet Johl.
Starr, Fields and Koenig were the collectors of dolls created in the 1890s and early years of the 20th century. Dolls in regional and occupational attire were what they sought; the message of the clothing was more important to them than the doll on which it was placed.
Kimport Dolls of Independence, Mo., helped to build their international doll collections. Ruby Short McKim (1891-1976), the founder of this early doll importing company, was a quilt designer who wrote a syndicated quilting column for Sunday women’s sections of newspapers nationwide. Though McKim started Kimport Dolls by importing dolls from around the world, the company expanded into manufacturing porcelain dolls. Kimport Dolls published Doll Talk for Collectors, a magazine for the Doll Hobby Club.
While doll collecting is ranked among the top three largest hobbies in the world, “organized doll collecting” began in the United States when The Doll Collectors of America formed in 1935 and the National Doll and Toy Club followed in 1937. In 1949 the National Doll and Toy Club became the United Federation of Doll Clubs, Inc. The National Doll and Toy Collectors Club was founded by Mary E. Lewis because she was convinced that somewhere in the big city of New York, there had to be other people who loved and collected dolls, too. Lewis decided to appear on a local radio show hosted by Mary Margaret McBride, requesting any doll collector listening to meet her in the Hotel Pennsylvania. Eight women responded, and the National Doll and Toy Collectors Club came to fruition. As the club grew, Lewis organized satellite clubs nationwide, which eventually led to the formation of the United Federation of Doll Clubs, Inc., better known as UFDC, www.ufdc.org
When these clubs were first forming, doll collectors were interested in glazed and unglazed (china and parian) shoulder heads of their youth and of the Victorian era.
The next generation of doll collectors sought the French and German bisque-headed dolls by such manufacturers as Jumeau, Bru, Simon and Halbig, K*R and Kestner.
Notable doll collectors over the years have consisted of those of royalty, such as Queen Victoria. As a child, Princess Victoria and the Baroness Lehzen dressed 132 small (3-inch-to-9-inch) peg-wooden dolls. Victoria kept a copybook on which she carefully wrote: “List of my dolls.” The dolls were often dressed to imitate noted persons of the day. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and Carmen de Sylva, queen of Romania, were doll collectors. Actresses such as Sarah Bernhart, Shirley Temple Black, Jane Withers and Demi Moore, and writers George Sand, Frances Hodgson Burnett and poet Eugene Field collect(ed) dolls.
Other collectors have created museums to house their collections. A portion of philanthropist Margaret Woodbury Strong’s doll collection survives today in Rochester, NY, at the Strong National Museum of Play http://www.strongmuseum.org/. The Strong also plays host to the National Toy Hall of Fame®, which has honored dolls such as Raggedy Ann & Raggedy Andy, and Barbie®.
An outstanding private collection belonging to Rosalie Whyel can be seen at The Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art in Bellevue, Wash., whose exhibits feature more than 1,200 dolls on permanent display, ranging from antique to modern, plus teddy bears, toys, dollhouses, miniatures and other childhood memorabilia, http://www.dollart.com/.
Dolls can be found in attics or antique shops. They can be found on the Internet or at auctions. The passion for doll collecting was first fed by finds in antique shops and specialized dealer lists. Then, in the late 1960s, auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London began to hold regular doll auctions. Today, auctions of dolls are a major international trade venue for dealers and collectors alike. Specialized doll shows are held periodically throughout the nation as well as world wide.
A particularly fine magazine aimed at antique doll collecting is Antique Doll Collector, http://www.antiquedollcollector.com/. Other magazines covering a broad range of dolls (antique to modern) include: Doll Reader http://www.dollreader.com/; Dolls Magazine http://www.dollsmagazine.com/; Doll Castle News http://www.dollcastlemagazine.com/.
Jan Foulke’s Guide to Dolls (Bangzoom Publishers, 2006) and Linda Edward’s Doll Values From Antique to Modern (Collectors Books, 2006) are excellent price guides for collectors. While now out of print, the Coleman’s Encyclopedia of Dolls (Volumes 1 & 2) is an invaluable reference source for serious collectors and can be readily found on the secondary book market.
Today’s doll collector might specialize in cloth or wood, bisque or china, plastic or paper and might strive for an encyclopedic collection—a wide range of dolls that represent their long history. Each special find is a treasure and each collector is a curator, a caretaker of the doll, and a preservationist for future collectors.