Madame Alexander Celebrates 90 Years of Making Beautiful Dolls

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

A Madame Alexander “Karen Ballerina” doll, wearing tulle and taffeta dancing outfit with gold trim, floss hair with braids and flowers, stands 18 inches. The Alexander Doll Company celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. (Photo: Morphy Auctions)

This “So-Lite” cloth baby with molded mask face, painted eyes with real eyelashes, blonde yarn hair, wearing original organdy long baby dress and matching hat (16 inches tall) is an example of a cloth doll created by Madame Alexander. (Photo: Morphy Auctions)

The words Madame Alexander and beauty are inseparable. From the time she was a girl, Bertha Alexander loved beautiful things—the fine Dresden porcelains and ornaments she saw in her father’s shop, where he repaired antiques and dolls, and the lovely outfits and hats on the ladies who visited. In an interview she once said, “I always wanted the best of everything.” When she started to make dolls, she fulfilled her dreams by creating exquisite dolls of the finest quality.

Alexander insisted her dolls be made of the best materials, using the finest craftsmanship available, to produce an outstanding result. In 1951, she received the Fashion Academy gold medal and was the first “Doll Reader” Lifetime Achievement Award recipient in 1986.

Born Bertha Alexander in 1895, she changed her name to Beatrice, perhaps feeling that it was more elegant. When she married in 1913, she became Beatrice Behrman. About the same time, she and her sisters started making cloth Red Cross nurse dolls and designing doll clothing for other firms. By 1923, with a loan of $1,600, she started the Alexander Doll Company, deciding to create dolls bearing her maiden name. After paying a month’s rent and buying a sewing machine and supplies, she didn’t have enough money to buy dollmaking machines, so she made cloth dolls. Her first employees were neighborhood men and women who sewed dolls in the evenings.

A matching set of 8-inch Dionne Quintuplet toddlers in organdy outfits with hats and name pins. (Photo: Morphy Auctions)

“Emelie” Dionne Quintuplet toddler in lavender dress with name pin, 16 inches. (Photo: Morphy Auctions)

Her earliest cloth dolls had flat faces, but she soon developed a method of creating dolls with molded mask faces. Her first dolls were based on characters from the books she read and loved as a child: “Alice in Wonderland,” “Little Women” and the books of Charles Dickens. She always believed dolls should be not only beautiful but educational, and hoped her character dolls would encourage children to read the books which inspired the dolls.

The name Madame Alexander first appeared in the trade magazine “Playthings” in 1928. About this time, Madame was finally able to acquire her own factory and expand into manufacturing composition dolls. Her big break came in 1934, as the world marveled over the birth of five identical baby girls—the Dionne Quintuplets—in a farmhouse near Ontario, Canada. Madame was astute enough to acquire exclusive rights to reproduce the quints as dolls.

“Scarlett O’Hara” in velvet gown and hat over cotton print dress, hoop slip, pantaloons, and socks with green shoes, 18 inches tall. (Photo: Morphy Auctions)

These dolls were made in sizes ranging from 7 ½ inches to 24 inches. Designed by Bernard Lipfert, the dolls had delightful faces on chubby, dimpled baby and later toddler bodies; some with wigs and some with molded and painted hair; some with painted eyes and some with sleeping eyes. Madame designed a complete line of matching clothing and hats for the quints in pastel colors. Each baby had a color of her own: pink for Yvonne; yellow for Annette; green for Cecile; lavender for Emelie; and blue for Marie.

Alexander doll clothes have always been beautifully designed and well-constructed, with attention to detail as well as durability. The quintuplet designs helped to establish this tradition. All the dolls carried the Alexander mark on their bodies and a Madame Alexander cloth tag on the clothing. The dolls became a sensation and brought the Madame Alexander name to the forefront of doll manufacturers. 

“Princess Elizabeth” in taffeta and tulle gown, carrying a reticule and wearing her tiara, 16 inches tall. (Photo: Morphy Auctions)

“Wendy Ann Bride” in satin gown with gold brocade trim, tulle veil, and lilies of the valley, 14 inches tall. (Photo: Morphy Auctions)

Her next big project came as a result of her avid reading. In 1936, the epic novel “Gone With the Wind” became an overnight sensation. In an interview, she said “I began to read [the book] on a Friday evening and continued until I finished it by the end of the weekend. On Monday morning I went to work, and by Wednesday I had created a doll from the description of Scarlett in the novel. She had a heart-shaped face, a small nose, green eyes, black hair, and was one of my prettiest doll characters.” Madame Alexander was granted a trademark for “Scarlet [sic] O’Hara” dolls April 29, 1937, and contracted with MGM to produce additional dolls even before the film version was begun.

Madame designed dozens of romantic costumes for Scarlett, many of them in green—made with cotton prints, satin, taffeta and velvet. In the novel, Scarlett did wear a lot of green. When asked about this, author Margaret Mitchell replied that she hadn’t realized it but was not surprised, as green was her own favorite color. After the film release, Madame added designs based on the film costumes, including the white dress with flounced skirt from the opening scenes, the sprigged muslin with straw hat from the Wilkes barbecue, and the green velvet gown made from “Miss Ellen’s portieres.” Scarlett, Melanie, Mammy, Rhett and other “Gone With the Wind” characters have been an important part of the Madame Alexander line for 75 years.

A doll of famous ice skater “Sonja Henie” with special portrait face, 18 inches tall. (Photo: Morphy Auctions)

“McGuffey Ana” with dotted Swiss pinafore and matching hat, 15 inches tall. (Photo: Morphy Auctions)

Keenly aware of current events, Madame Alexander was quick to produce the “Princess Elizabeth” doll in 1937 to commemorate the coronation King George VI of England. The doll had a new face, specially designed to show a happy child with lashed sleeping eyes and an open mouth with teeth. It was inspired by a portrait of Elizabeth when she was 10 years old. Her blonde wig was side-parted with short curls. Madame Alexander designed a variety of organza and taffeta gowns for her to wear. “Princess Elizabeth” could also be found wearing a charming equestrian outfit with jodhpurs and riding boots as well as a darling everyday cotton dress with matching wool coat and hat. Madame Alexander had produced another winner!

The Princess Elizabeth face was used for several other child dolls. Although they’re different characters, their heads carry the Princess Elizabeth mark, so the hairstyles and tagged clothing are important in identifying these girls. Most popular was “McGuffey Ana,” also issued in 1937. She was designed to be an old-fashioned school girl reminiscent of the days of the little red schoolhouse where the famous McGuffey Readers were used. “McGuffey Ana” can be identified by her braided blonde wig with curly bangs. She usually wears a cotton plaid or print school dress topped by a white organdy apron and high-button shoes. Sometimes she wears a straw hat or a ruffled organdy cap. Other dolls made using the Princess Elizabeth mold were “Kate Greenaway,” “Flora McFlimsey” and “Snow White” with closed mouth, a tie-in with the Walt Disney film from 1938.

Madame Alexander always understood the dreams of little girls and created dolls to fulfill them—princesses, brides, ballerinas, ice-skating champions—all were part of the early Alexander composition line. Their frothy outfits, trimmed with gold braid, faux fur and satin ribbons, delighted little girls with their style and elegance. Madame Alexander died in 1990, but her legacy lives on in the company she founded, which this year celebrates its 90th birthday.

What a tremendous tribute to her talent, creativity, and business acumen!

Jan Foulke is an authority on antique and vintage dolls, with nearly 40 years of experience in the field who writes for DOLLS magazine. She’s the author of “Jan Foulke’s Guide to Dolls,” a full-color reference book from Synapse Publishing.

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