Doll Collector: Bru is the ‘Face’ of Antique French Dolls

(This article first appeared in Doll Collector magazine. Please click here to subscribe)

A 22-inch tall doll from a McMasters Harris auction has the ideal Bru face. (Photo: McMasters Harris Auction Co.)

If you were to make a survey of doll collectors today and ask them to name their first choice for a brand of antique French dolls, chances are that Bru would win. Oddly, the early collectors in the 1940s and ’50s would not have given Bru anything higher than second place—in those days Jumeau was “king.” Whether the change is because more information is available now about the Bru than previously, or because our taste in dolls has changed, there is no doubt that the Bru dolls are highly desirable!

To our eyes today, the Bru dolls are among the loveliest antique dolls. The quality of the bisque and painting tends to be exceptional, especially in the early bébé models. With their large luminous paperweight eyes, the Bru faces reflect the sweetness of the ideal child.

The company, known as Bru Jne. & Cie, was founded in 1866 in Paris by Leon Casimir Bru. At first the company bought doll components from various sources and assembled them into complete dolls which it sold wholesale. At this time the traditional doll was the lady fashion doll, or poupee, with a kid or cloth body, bisque head and shoulder plate.

The bodies were made in two styles— those with gussets to allow flexible joints and the less expensive rigid ones. Some of the Bru lady dolls have a distinctive smile—sometimes called a “Mona Lisa” smile by collectors. Later, beautifully articulated wooden bodies were made for the Bru fashion dolls.

This 24-inch-tall Bru is from a McMasters auction. (Photo: McMasters Harris Auction Co.)

This early Bru has beautifully modeled bisque hands. (Photo: Theriault’s)

By 1880 the lady fashion doll was waning in popularity and the new child doll, the bébé, was gaining in favor. About 1875 Emile Jumeau created a child-like doll which won a gold medal (Medaille d’or) in the Paris Exposition in 1878. Naturally, the other French dollmakers, including Bru, quickly borrowed the concept and came out with their own versions of the child or bébé doll.

Through the years, Casimir Bru applied for numerous patents concerning improvements to dolls. His bébé featured one of them: a new body construction with a kid leather torso, exquisite bisque hands and a realistically molded bisque breast plate. Not only that, the body had child-like proportions quite unlike the fashion bodies. The new child bodies were used with some of the most desirable early Bru bisque bébé heads. Later dolls, such as those marked “Bru Jne.,” tend to have ball-jointed composition bodies like other dolls of the period.

A 17-inch-tall Bru on a jointed wooden body. (Photo: McMasters Harris Auction Co.)

A 24-inch-tall Nursing Bru has an open mouth for the bottle. (Photo: Norma Carroll)

Other patents include a couple of “surprise dolls,” one with a music box in the torso and one with two faces. By turning the head, the two-faced doll changed from laughing to weeping. Bru also took out a patent for an unbreakable jointed doll made of India rubber; for a nursing bébé called Bébé Teteur; for Bébé Le Dormeur, a doll that realistically closed its eyes as a result of the eyelids moving; and for Bébé Gourmand, a doll that ate solid “food” which passed through the body, through the hollow legs and out through holes in the soles of the feet (the shoes even had little trap doors). It is easy to imagine why that particular model is very rare today—just imagine what delicacies children were tempted to feed it! According to the Colemans’ “Encyclopedia,” by 1881 Bru Jne. & Cie advertised that it had patented 21 inventions. Bru’s wife Appolyne was active in the business and several of the patents, such as one inserting a music box into a doll’s torso, were registered in her name.

A 22-inch-tall “circle dot” Bru. (Photo: Kate Smalley)

A 27-inch-tall Bru Jne R. (Photo: Ruth Jacobs)

The highly successful company was sold about 1883 to Henri Chevrot. The firm retained the Bru name, and patents continued to be registered by the Bru company for improvements to dolls. The Chevrot patents include one for a new jointing system for kid-bodied dolls, a walking and talking doll called Bébé Petit Pas, a doll with a breathing device and a doll that threw kisses when a string was pulled. Many gold medals won by the Bru firm at world exhibitions were won during the Chevrot years.

In 1899, when it became clear that the firms making the prestigious French dolls could no longer compete separately against the onslaught of less expensive German-made dolls, Bru joined the group of French dollmakers that formed Société Française de Fabrication de Bébé et Jouets (The French Society for the Manufacture of Dolls and Toys), better known as S.F.B.J. All of the stock, trademarks and patents were transferred so the name Bru continued on dolls for several more decades. However, the dolls from the S.F.B.J. years seldom come close to the quality or beauty of the dolls made by Casimir Bru or Henri Chevrot.

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Carolyn Cook, a life-long collector of dolls, is the author of the book “Gene.”

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