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Antique Spotlight – Dolls Today

This is the eighth in a series of antique spotlights focusing on dolls. Each article featured a museum to visit that currently has dolls on display!

Before 1950, toy manufacturers almost exclusively marketed toward parents. But in the latter half of the 20th century, companies began marketing directly to children.

"Pester Power"

The television age provided a brand new way for dollmakers to reach children. Their commercials created and responded to children's fantasies. They hired researchers and bought media time to create a demand for their products. After seeing how wonderful a toy was, children would nag their parents, who would ultimately give in and buy it. This phenomenon has become known as "pester power."

The post-World War II era exulted the notion that everyone was entitled to a good life. Parents eager to see their children happy and well-adjusted found it difficult to resist the profusion of playthings kids said they wanted.

Gender Stereotypes Revisited

Some of the iconic dolls of the late 20th century play directly into gender stereotypes. Chatty Cathy, for example, is a little girl who talks too much. And Barbie, with her impossibly perfect body, "hates math."

In her book Made to Play House, Miriam Formanek-Brunell writes, “How many adults have submitted helplessly to a daughter or a young friend's longing for a doll (invariably spawned by a TV commercial), even though it costs a small fortune, is poorly constructed, and promotes a discomforting idealogy?"

And yet, these toys are immensely popular among little girls, purchased for them by adults. A testimony to the power of pestering!

DOLLS ON EXHIBIT

According to Curator Mary Jane Lenz, there are thousands of dolls in the permanent collection of the National Museum of the American Indian.

“Like the rest of the collection” says Lenz, “they come from all over the western hemisphere, from the Canadian Arctic to the southern part of Chile in South America. The oldest dolls are ceramic figurines from Valdivia, Ecuador (about 3,000 years old); the newest ones are some Lakota dolls made in the past ten years. They include many dolls made as playthings as well as dolls made for ceremonial purposes (including some jointed marionettes from the Pacific Northwest), Hopi and Zuni katsina figures from the American Southwest, and many dolls made for collectors. Some of the collector dolls are made by named artists such as Helen Cordero (Storyteller dolls), Ethel Washington from Kotzebue, Alaska, and Plains dolls made by Cecelia Fire Thunder.”

There are over 100 dolls on display at the NMAI’s Mall Museum. They are displayed by region.

NMAI is currently preparing some of their collections to go online. Visit their website at www.nmai.si.edu for more information.

For more information about the history of dolls and play, check out these books! I used both recently to create a doll exhibit at my museum.




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