Cloth Dolls – Late 19th Century American

A numbered set of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cloth dolls by R. John Wright

p4A ItemID F7948213
Black Americana fabric doll, ca. 1940, mounted to a wood base

p4A ItemID F7938449
A Philadelphia, Sheppard & Co. painted composition and cloth baby doll

p4A ItemID F7936817
A grouping of three Martha Chase stockinette dolls

p4A ItemID F7936808

Early American Cloth Dolls

The early American cloth dolls demonstrated the ingenuity and creativity of many settler families. When both money and material goods were scarce, it was not unusual for a mother to make a doll for her child by simply knotting whatever fabric scraps she could find.

If a corncob was available, it became the doll body. Fabric scraps were used for the arms and legs and clothing. As materials became more varied and plentiful, the ambitious mother painstakingly patterned and cut and sewed cotton muslin and worn stockings into doll forms that she stuffed with bits of cotton, corn kernels or straw.

Black face dolls have been popular from early in the history of America into the 20th century. Slaves before the Civil war were making black face dolls. It is said these women fashioned black face dolls dressed in calico as playthings for the white children in their care. The dolls were dressed and sized to represent a slave mother, father or child. The topsy turvy dolls were black face dolls dressed for work at one end and a white face doll appeared dressed in fashionable garments at the other. Each doll was concealed beneath the other’s skirt.

Soon after color lithography was introduced at the end of the 19th century, sheets of doll patterns printed on fabric were sold at prices ranging from a dime to a quarter. The “Cabbage Patch” doll for example was a life-sized toddler pattern, presented wearing printed underwear. To complete the doll, mothers used bits of leftover pieces to stuff and clothe the dolls. These patterns were a quick success and alerted major home product producers, such as Kellogg’s Cream of Wheat and Aunt Jemima, to a good advertising tool. Doll patterns offered as premiums for product purcheses generated enthusiastic responses from shopping mothers, aunts and grannies.

Toward the end of the 19th century, commercially made dolls began to appear in the marketplace. Created by women as businesses within their homes, these dolls became more popular as their production expanded. The doll cottage industry employed local women. Some more profitable ventures moved into full fledged factories. As Jean Burkes, curator of decorative arts at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont points out, American women were consciously trying to compete with European manufacturers with the goal of creating a playable, safe doll.


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