Antique Spotlight – Early American Dolls

Antique Spotlight – Early American Dolls
This is the first in a series of antique spotlights focusing on dolls. Each article will feature a museum to visit that currently has dolls on display!

The first dolls arrived in North America with Sir Walter Raleigh, when he colonized Virginia in 1585. The British shared these playthings with Native American children, who were "greatlye Dilighted with puppetts, and babes which wear brought oute of England," according to a contemporary journalist.

Since those humble beginnings, dolls of all shapes and sizes have found their way into the hands of thrilled children and adult collectors alike.

Before the Civil War, dolls were mostly used to teach daughters sewing skills. Antebellum magazines featured simple projects for children to make, such as pen-wipe dolls (used to clean the nib of a pen dipped in ink), sewing dolls (whose pockets held thimbles and other sewing items), and pincushion dolls.

Although girls might make dolls themselves, they often did not have much time to play with them. Responsibilities within the household kept girls quite busy. They may have had to care for younger siblings, as well as assist with cooking and cleaning chores, leaving precious little time for play.

As the century progressed, boys and girls spent more time in school, further reducing free time. Children of religious families were expected to observe the Sabbath like adults, which meant they were to "pray, not play."

Handmade or Homemade

Although the number of toys available continued to rise in the mid-19th century, there were still relatively few dolls in the middle-class household.

Girls often preferred "uglier" handmade dolls that could be played with, rather than fancier dolls that were intended to be looked at. One woman, recalling her childhood in the 1850s, said, “My sister and I had the regulation rag doll with long curls and club feet, very ugly but dear to our hearts."

Contemporary writer Eliza Leslie found that cloth dolls "remain longer in favor with their young owners, and continue to give them more real satisfaction, than the handsomest wax doll that can be purchased."


Hundreds of dolls are on display at the Toy & Miniature Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

According to Mary Wheeler, the museum’s coordinator of collections, the museum’s dolls represent almost every kind that was made. “We have dolls of about every material, including bisque, china, porcelain, wax, cloth, composition, wood, papier-mache, leather, plastic, vinyl, modeling sculpey, rubber, and metal.”

Highlights include a wide variety of fine antique dollhouse doll examples, a Bebe Jumeau in her original couture outfit, a mid 18th century peg wooden doll named Georgiana, an Izannah Walker doll named "Miss Mary" who comes with many belongings including original clothes and photos of her original owner, an all-leather pair of dolls resembling a young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, porcelain lady dolls with rare molded hairstyles by Royal Copenhagen and other early porcelain firms, an early 19th century German lady doll with rare coiffure, a Simon and Halbig swimming doll, many early and rare Japanese dolls, Chinese Door of Hope dolls, a collection of Peddler dolls, French fashions with clothing and accessories, contemporary miniature artist dolls, and a wide variety of antique dolls by various German manufacturers.

If you are in the area, check out the Toy & Miniature Museum of Kansas City!

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.

You Should Also Read:
Antique Spotlight -- Depression Glass
Antique Spotlight -- American Costume Jewelry
Antique Spotlight -- Early China

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