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Antique Spotlight – Children’s Day

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

The Better Play for Childhood League, established in 1926 to "stimulate normal play" and emphasize the "right kind of play for all children," created Children's Day on the third Saturday of June.

The time was chosen because children were just out of school, and parents were more likely to splurge on gifts as a reward for good report cards. Coincidentally, the date also fell half way between Christmas shopping seasons, during slow summer sales months.

Although it appeared to some as a thinly-veiled marketing gimmick, Children's Day called attention to the dangers children faced while playing in the streets. As urban centers expanded, fewer playgrounds were available to city kids, who took to the streets instead.

Teaching Parents

The Better Play for Childhood League took on the task of teaching parents how to raise their children. They criticized inattentive mothers who were consumed with recreational activities and service clubs, calling on them to help direct children's "natural play instincts."

The solution, of course, was safe, wholesome play at home -- preferably playing with purchased toys.

Dollmakers presented themselves as “experts" on child care and female socialization. They created pamphlets on how dolls could be used to teach hygiene, feminine etiquette, and good manners.

Contests & Competitions

Children's Day contests and competitions were gender-specific. Activities for boys included boat races and other activities that brought them closer to nature. Doll play dominated girls' activities -- doll carriage contests, doll competitions, and doll parades. One contest in Louisiana featured a competition for prettiest, funniest, oldest, and newest doll, which of course increased doll sales before the competition.


DOLLS ON EXHIBIT

The Milwaukee Public Museum has a large collection of over 1000 dolls, some of which are currently on display.

According to Albert Muchka, associate curator of American history, “Dolls are displayed in the Streets of Old Milwaukee gallery and the European Village gallery. We also recently completed a major showing of our Japanese Friendship doll . The Friendship doll will be displayed again in March [2009] to coincide with the Hina Matsuri, the Japanese Doll festival.”

The museum displays a variety of ethnic dolls, representing 34 major ethnic groups in Milwaukee. They also "demonstrate aspects of folk craft," says Muchka, "which is the overall theme of the European Village."

The Toy Shop in the Streets of Old Milwaukee displays a number of dolls, as well as many other children's toys. Dolls can also be found in the Civil War parlor, Grandma's house, and the Ahnert log cabin.

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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