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Antique Spotlight – Dolls in the Victorian Age

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

Before the Civil War, the American toy industry barely existed. An 1850 census listed just 47 toy makers, but by 1880 there were 173.

Life was changing for children and adults. By the Industrial Revolution, lines between work and play were much more clear. The idea of "childhood" as a separate and special phase of life was beginning to take hold, with an emphasis on "happiness." The

notion of play as the "devil's workshop," prevalent in the Puritan era, had faded into the past.

The Doll Industry Expands

Improved technology helped the toy industry blossom, at the same time workers were seeing an increase in salary and a shorter workweek. The growth of the middle-class created a market ready to spend their money on leisure and recreation.

More dolls were purchased after the Civil War than ever before. And girls had more time to play with them.

As the size of the family shrunk, girls had fewer responsibilities at home. At the same time, an emerging consumer culture created a wide variety of dolls and other toys for children to enjoy.

But instead of teaching girls homemaking skills like sewing, dolls in the Victorian era emphasized fashion.

Imported "fashion babies" were quite expensive. The average household income in 1890 was $486, and a jointed kid doll with composition head from France could cost anywhere from $3 to $30. Some of the most expensive French fashion dolls arrived with their own trunk full of clothes, which could triple the price!

Adults expected girls to mimic new rituals of high society. Some dolls even came with miniature calling cards, for "visiting"!


The Schwenkfelder Library & Heritage Center in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania has two wonderful doll exhibits to view.

The museum’s small collection of dolls and doll furniture is on long-term display and is the lifelong collection of a single donor. According to Candace Perry, curator of collections, the exhibit “is set up as whimsical tableaux in two cases, as the donor had it displayed in her lifetime. The dolls are turn of the 20th century, and the furniture and charming accessories range from 1830 to the near present.”

The museum is also opening a temporary exhibition called “My Own Fairy Tale: Fanciful Art Dolls by Stacy Clark” that will be on view from November 28, 2008 to June 30, 2009. The exhibit invites visitors into a specially created environment in the museum galleries where Stacy's characters dwell, and asks them to develop their own story about the dolls, using cues and clues from the setting and traditional fairy tales and folk legend.

“The dolls are entirely hand constructed, sculpted and painted,” says Perry, “and wear hand stitched, quilted and embroidered clothes, incorporating found and recycled fur and leather sometimes, also. Stacy often models her figures on real-life persons -- in this case there are renditions of Sarah Palin and Michael Phelps in the exhibit!”

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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Antique Spotlight -- Early American Dolls
Antique Spotlight -- Bavarian China
BOOK REVIEW -- Museum Careers, A Practical Guide
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Content copyright © 2015 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Kim Kenney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Kim Kenney for details.


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