Eternal Appeal of French Bébé Dolls still Captivate Collectors

(This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of DOLLS magazine)

An early Jumeau portrait doll. Dolls, made by French manufacturers such as Jumeau, Bru and Steiner in the mid-1800s, vied to capture the hearts not just of little girls but also to grab the attention of high society.

Elizabeth awoke Christmas morning to an elaborate tree decorated with candles, silver icicles, and wonderful glass ornaments. A tin train circled the tree, filled with toys and gilded offerings. Trumpets and soldiers, teddies and tea sets, more than she could take in with just a glance. As Elizabeth circled to the back side of the tree, their eyes met.

She was almost as big as a real child, and her deep eyes looked right into Elizabeth as if she understood. Her dress was red and her long brown hair was styled like a real girl’s. The note read, “For Elizabeth, a good girl. Merry Christmas.” There was no need to look further. Elizabeth would spend the rest of the day with her new friend. She named the doll Lily because she thought it was as beautiful as a flower. They dined on Christmas candies, had high tea with royalty, rode the train to faraway places, and fell in love with a soldier. They fought grizzly bears in the pine forest, rode their trusty camel Waldo through the desert and fell asleep together at the end of the day.

The scene above was inspired by an antique postcard showing a sleeping child guarded by her dog and a bisque-head doll.

Once playthings for only children of wealthy families, the early French bisque dolls are still among the most cherished and sought-after dolls today. In the mid-1800s, doll manufacturers such as Jumeau, Bru and Steiner, vied to capture the hearts not just of little girls but also to grab the attention of high society.

A rare 9-inch Series F Steiner doll.

An automata doll by Jumeau.

An all-original 8 ½-inch portrait-style Jumeau doll with accessories.

Size 3 and size 6 Brus dolls with accessories.

Doll manufactures strived to make the most beautiful and innovative dolls of the time. The French fashion dolls of the day played a huge part in the fashion industry, allowing designers to display their wares in more transportable manner and to reach further into other countries.

Jules Steiner, a clockmaker and doll manufacturer, was the first to patent a clockwork mechanism inserted into a doll. Many other manufacturers would follow suit, making amazing lifelike creations that amazed adults and children alike. These dolls were more a form of entertainment than a plaything for children. It was common for family and friends to gather around them in the parlor to watch the miracle of a doll that turned its head, tapped its foot and even played music!

A 42-inch Series C Steiner on a carousel horse.

Several small French bébé dolls with accessories.

Although dolls of the time were also made from wood, wax, paper mâché and more, it was the bisque-headed dolls with childlike features that became known as “bébé” that captured the hearts of most every little girl of the time.

The French doll manufacturers also competed in creating impeccable costuming. Jumeau excelled at this, offering some of the most amazing and elaborate costumes. Extensive wardrobes could also be commissioned from couturiers using the finest silks, wools and velvets. From tiny detailed leather gloves and shoes to the most meticulous hats with flowers and exotic plumes, if it could be dreamed, it could be made.

Although economies fluctuate and collectors move in and out of the field, the French bébé has remained strong. What is it that continues to draw us to these dolls time and again? Is it the beauty of the sculpt? The elusive hunt for these treasures? Or is it, perhaps, the desire to re- capture that feeling Elizabeth had that first morning, the idea that we can look in those deep eyes and travel to a faraway place, dine with royalty, adventure across the desserts, and live through young eyes again?

Doll artist Connie Lowe is an admirer and costumer of antique dolls. She expanded into creating costumes for ball-jointed dolls (BJDs) from antique and vintage fabric and went on to sculpting her own BJD creations.

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