Adult doll collectors remain young at heart

By on March 26, 2014

According to historians, dolls have been a part of humankind since prehistoric times.

Early dolls –  made from primitive materials such as clay, wood and fur –  often depicted religious figures and were possibly used in worship ceremonies.

Egyptian tombs of wealthy families have included pottery-type dolls, leading historians to believe they were cherished and important possessions.

However, modern dictionaries describe a doll as “a child’s toy made to resemble a baby or other human being.”

Most little girls grow up with at least one doll that became a favorite and cherished plaything. On the other hand, a trip to a doll show or antique shop reveals that dolls are much more than a child’s toy to people much older than children. Many serious doll collectors and dealers of all ages exist and flourish in the marketplace.

A grandma-aged collector admitted her love affair with dolls “’keeps me young and out of trouble.”

Following the era of ancient dolls, Europe became the major hub for doll production. Early 16th- and 17th-century wooden dolls, manufactured primarily in England and Germany, had very simple peg joints and resembled a clothespin. Very few exist today and are mostly in museums.

There is so much to learn about antique dolls, including costuming; the history of their creators, manufacturers and seamstresses; and the differing ways how children played with them. New information is gleaned on those topics each year as collector interest continues to rise.

dollsIn addition to wooden dolls, wax dolls were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries with Munich becoming a major manufacturing center. Dolls’ heads were created by pouring melted wax into a mold, often made of plaster. Bodies of wax dolls were generally made of stuffed cloth, with wax limbs. The genre that dolls fall into is determined by the material that their heads are made of – not from the materials used for the bodies. Wax dolls can have beautifully realistic heads because wax can mimic skin much better than wood.

The development of composition in the 1800s provided an alternative to wood and wax. Composition is a collective term for mixtures of pulped wood or paper. These mixtures, molded under pressure, created a durable doll that could be mass produced. Manufacturers closely guarded the recipes for their mixtures, sometimes using strange ingredients like ash or eggshells. Papier-mâché, a type of composition, became one of the most popular mixtures.

The 19th century saw the popularity of dolls made of porcelain which is made by firing special clays in a kiln at extremely high temperatures. The name ‘porcelain’ is used to refer to both china and bisque dolls. China is glazed, whereas bisque is unglazed.

The French ‘bebe’ became popular after its introduction in 1850 and was unique from its predecessors because it depicted a younger child. Until then, most dolls were representations of older children or adults. Although the French dolls were unsurpassed in their beauty and artistry, German bisque dolls became popular during this time because they were not as expensive. Porcelain dolls were produced into the early decades of the 1900s and are very popular with today’s collectors.

Doll making did not become an industry in the United States until after the Civil War with production concentrated in the New England area. Domestic dolls were made from a variety of materials, including leather, rubber, papier-mâché and cloth. Celluloid, developed in New Jersey during the 1860s became popular and was used until the 1950s; however, it fell out of favor because of its extreme flammability and tendency to fade.

After World War II, doll manufacturers experimented with plastics, rubber and foam rubber. Hard plastic dolls, manufactured in the 1940s and 50s, resembled composition dolls but were much more durable. In the 50s and 60s, vinyl changed doll making. Vinyl allowed doll makers to root hair into the head, rather than using wigs or painted hair. Although most dolls are now mass-produced using modern materials and methods, some doll makers still use the traditional materials of the past to make collectible dolls.

All dolls created before approximately 1930 are considered antique. This is a somewhat arbitrary division, but in general, most collectors agree pre-1930 bisque, china, papier-mâché, wood and wax dolls are antiques with newer dolls falling into the vintage category. Most dolls, both antique and vintage, become more valuable with original clothing and outfits.

Several vintage dolls are highly valued, such as the popular “Ginny” dolls made in the 1940s and 50s. A favorite among girls, the eight-inch dolls were created by Jennie Graves, founder of the Vogue Doll Company, and originally started as a cottage industry run out of her home.

Mrs. Graves designed most of the clothing, including wonderfully detailed outfits complete with hats, purses and snap-shoes, adding immensely to the doll’s popularity. Both the original “Ginny” and reproductions dressed in vintage-style outfits are popular with dealers and collectors.

Even the controversial ‘Barbie,’ introduced in 1959, enjoys popularity with vintage doll collectors. Early Barbies in original clothing and boxes can bring good prices at doll auctions.

Through the years, many little girls counted a doll among their prized possessions. Most that survived years of play have an honored place in the hearts and homes of family members.

However, the shops along Adamstown’s antique strip offer for sale many kinds of antique and vintage dolls. All are looking for new homes. Happy Hunting!

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