Feller Doll Collection Reflects 50 Years of Passion

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

A Bengal bride from India, one of hundreds from Feller’s lifetime collection, holds a conch shell. (Photo: Irina Makagon)

Brooklyn grandmother Linda Feller has been collecting dolls for more than 50 years, amassing nearly 3,800 from 157 countries. Surrounded by so many objects of affection, it’s no wonder she named her website ILoveMyDolls.com. Her doll collection, divided into 21 categories, is displayed in her apartment.

Some represent fictional or historical characters, including Betty Boop, Marie Antoinette, Don Quixote, John Adams, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anne of Green Gables and Joan of Arc. The diverse collection includes a Vegas showgirl, a Beijing Opera performer, a Canadian Royal Mounted Policeman, an Ecuadorian Panama-hat maker, water sellers with a bell to announce their arrival, a leprechaun, a bagpiper, a blacksmith, embroiderers and a Curacao doll doing the limbo.

In lectures last September at a Brooklyn Public Library branch where she displayed 170 of her dolls, Feller said collecting them fed her lifelong interest in world cultures. Her travels have taken her to 72 countries.

Feller’s mother was Canadian, so the family often traveled to Toronto; her father inspired a love of foreign lands, nurtured further by series of books Feller devoured about twins of various nations.

This doll from Bahrain from Feller’s lifetime collection carries a woven straw basket for dates. (Photo: Irina Makagon)

As a bonus, as she acquired new pieces for her collection, Feller learned cultural tidbits. For example, Masai tribesmen always carry something red, a Taiwanese doll can be distinguished from a Chinese one by the narrowness of its skirt, a red dot on the forehead of an Indian woman signifies that she’s married, Ethiopian women in Israel make doll clothes from their own worn clothing, corks on the hat of an outback Australian are intended to deter flies and women in South Africa are given fertility dolls to help them conceive. 

Feller’s dolls include “nothing precious or edible,” she said. Since she began collecting in 1962, she’s acquired one from each U.S. state. Her collection ranges in size from a 3/4-inch netsuke reclining man to a 50-inch maid vacuum-cleaner cover.

Some were gifts, but Feller bought most of the dolls herself, many in their countries of origin, as well as at the UN, World’s Fair, museums and eBay.

Several came from unexpected venues, such as a Vietnamese grocery in France where Feller found a Korean doll or a Brooklyn beauty parlor where she purchased a Mexican doll.

For one special doll, she traveled thousands of miles by air, including round-trip flights to Seattle, Finland and Alaska. Originally, she was kept from entering an exhibit for arriving too near the closing time. She later missed the same exhibit in New York because of pneumonia. Finally in Alaska, she bought the exhibit’s highlight: a doll in a seal-gut coat for protection against water and cold.

A Pearly Queen doll from England from Feller’s Collection. The Pearly Kings and Queens wear outfits decorated with pearl buttons to raise money for charity. (Photo: Irina Makagon)

Her first acquisition came in a Washington, D.C., store where the perfect souvenir she thought was a colonial doll was, in fact, a Carlson pioneer. The collection really began with her second purchase, a Polish doll she chose because her grandparents had been born in Poland.

Feller’s oldest doll is a bisque German sailor from the 1890s, while unusual members of her collection include an African doll made of bottle caps, a Mali dogon dancer made from soda cans, one from Venezuela made of banana leaves, and—one of her favorites—a carved wooden Indonesian doll whose middle is deliberately missing. 

Feller said people make dolls from whatever material is available, including walrus bone in Alaska and lion fur on a Kenyan doll. Many of her dolls and their costumes are of unusual materials, including papier mâche, cloth, cornhusks, flax, straw, pipe cleaners, glass, leather, metal, seashells and feathers.

Like most collectors, Feller said, she started with “pretty” but eventually concentrated on “interesting” dolls. Intrigued by ethnicity, she’ll buy a doll based on its overall appearance, expression and national origin, with costumes being especially important.

Plus factors for her are embroidery or beading, along with outfits in yellow—her favorite color.

Feller, who is widowed, has an adult son and daughter and five grandchildren. She earned a Bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and a Master’s degree in library science from Pratt Institute, then worked as a librarian at Brooklyn Technical High School before serving for eight years as a curator of the Toy Museum of New York.

Feller said she still experiences “the joy, excitement and contentment” of finding something new and then sharing the dolls with family, friends and educational groups.

She hopes to acquire dolls from French Guiana and the Pacific Islands to complete her beloved collection.

Joel H. Cohen is a long-time freelance writer, whose publication credits include 35 non-fiction books (the majority for young readers), numerous articles and essays in various magazines and newspapers. He has worked as a reporter, speechwriter and public relations representative, as well as writes customized poems for special occasions under the name Rhyme and Pun-ishment. He and his wife Nancy  live in Staten Island, N.Y. You can e-mail him at sijello@aol.com.

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