Antique Spotlight – How Did Girls Play with Dolls?

Antique Spotlight – How Did Girls Play with Dolls?
This is the third in a series of antique spotlights focusing on dolls. Each article will feature a museum to visit that currently has dolls on display!

It is difficult to know how children actually played with their toys when alone in their nurseries and homes. Oral histories, diaries, and a limited number of contemporary studies and surveys help to provide a snapshot of child's play. Evidence is scarce about what childhood was actually like. What survives are instructions on how to play with dolls, but not much documentation of how girls actually used dolls.

Sources that do exist reveal that girls did not always play with their dolls in prescribed ways, as adults might have expected. One of the most surprising ways in which Victorian girls played with their dolls was staging doll funerals.

Doll Funerals

Death was very much a part of young lives. Funerals were as common as wedding and birth celebrations. At the same time, the rural cemetery movement was in full swing. Girls and their families would have spent a lot of time using cemeteries for recreational purposes, making death a part of life.

Victorian mourning rituals were elaborate and detailed, particularly related to dress code. The entire world took their lead from Queen Victoria, who had been widowed at a young age and spent the rest of her life mourning her late husband. Wearing black was mandatory for a certain time period, depending on the relationship to the deceased. Gradually purples and lavenders were introduced, but that could be more than a year later!

Also, a shift in religious thinking made the afterlife sound like a kind of "paradise" that sounded fun, far different from the fire and brimstone images of previous generations.

Girls would get together with friends and their dolls to act out funerals. Many French fashion dolls even came with their own mourning clothes packed in their trunks!

While staging doll funerals might make sense within the context of the times, other behavior is more surprising. Some girls actually exhibited aggression towards their dolls, which must have shocked their parents. One 13 year old girl knocked her doll's head against a window for crying. Another 4 year old girl punished hers by forcing it to eat dirt, stones, and coal.


Four hundred of the Shelburne Museum’s best dolls have recently been researched and conserved. According to museum employee Jean Burks, the dolls are “permanently on view in the newly renovated and reinterpreted Variety Building under state-of-the-art LED lights that the Shelburne Museum conservation [department] pioneered. They include English woodens, wax, wax-over composition, papier mache (Greiner, Voit), bisque (Jumeau and Bru Bebes, as well as Poupees, German Characters) parian, cloth (Lenci, Steiff), and chinas (MEISSEN ladies as well as boys in original clothing).”

All of the dolls are pictured in a full color catalog available through the museum’s website for $24.95. All dolls have been attributed to specific factories when possible.

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 -- Early American Dolls
Antique Spotlight -- Dolls in the Victorian Age
MORE Antique Spotlights!

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