Antique Spotlight – 20th Century Dolls

Antique Spotlight – 20th Century Dolls
This is the sixth in a series of antique spotlights focusing on dolls. Each article will feature a museum to visit that currently has dolls on display!

Doll culture blossomed after the turn of the century. Mass production, widespread distribution, mass marketing, and new technologies helped the doll industry expand. Illustrated catalogs, lavish window displays, and planned events played a significant role. Events drew huge crowds. In 1913, a California department store hosted 5000 girls at one doll tea party!

In this era, toys began to be linked to commercial products. Campbell Soup Kid dolls and Cracker Jack Boy dolls are two well-known examples from the era. "New Kid" dolls like Raggedy Ann and Andy, harkened back to the preferred ragdolls of previous generations. These flexible character dolls were made of soft, washable materials.

By the 1930s, movies were a popular pastime, and the doll industry followed suit with dolls like Shirley Temple and Little Orphan Annie.

Companion Dolls

In the 1910s and 1920s, EI Horsman and Effanbee expanded the child-doll population by producing "companion dolls." According to author Howard P. Chudacoff, with their "rosy cheeks, sparkling eyes, and sometimes mischievous expressions," these dolls became girls' fantasy friends.

One of the most popular companion dolls of the era was Effanbee's "Patsy." Born in 1924, Patsy is an early example of a "wardrobe doll," because she had her own line of clothing.

More Realistic Dolls

Effanbee also extended the trend of making dolls more realistic with Dy-Dee baby, introduced in 1934. Around the same time, Ideal created Betsy Wetsy, who drank and excreted real water.

As dolls became more life-like, doll play more closely approximated the experience of actually handling a baby. “My mother allowed me to get out of bed after I had gone to bed, recalled Ann Klos, a participant in the Doll Oral History Project at the Strong Museum of Play, “to give my baby a bottle because that is what mothers did."

Aggressive Marketing

Even as the industry was expanding in the early 20th century, the idea that girls did not "prefer doll play" posed a serious threat. With more play options open to them than ever before, girls were not always playing with their dolls. Playing outside on bicycles and ice skates and flying kites were becoming popular among girls as gender roles relaxed a bit. Marketing campaigns began to re-establish gender stereotypes to secure a market for their dolls.

According to one observer in 1908, “The little girls who have always cried for dolls at Christmas, are this year crying for Teddy Bears, and dolls are left on the shelves to cry the paint off their pretty cheeks because of the neglect."

Marketing efforts focused on idealizing femininity through dolls. Perfect "baby dolls" encouraged motherhood and homemaking, while dolls like Flossie the Flirt "modeled husband-getting."

Doll makers wanted mothers and girls to buy more dolls. Knowing that women were most likely to purchase toys for children, toy departments employed more women to sell dolls to mothers.

They devised new marketing techniques that would likely appeal to women, including more ads in women's magazines and cameo appearances by dolls in movies.


Visitors to the Heritage Village Museum, located near Cincinnati, Ohio, can see several dolls on display.

”Throughout the village,” says Lesley J. Poling, director of curatorial services, “as well as
off-site at the Hauck House, an Italianate home located in downtown Cincinnati, dolls of various materials can be found, from china, wood and composition to bisque, leather, and cloth.”

Most of the museum’s dolls date between 1860 and 1910. “Notable dolls include a Civil War era china flat top with sausage curls, a lovely Jumeau-type French fashion doll, a molded leather Darrow, and two one-of-a-kind homemade and handmade primitive dolls; including a ‘topsy-turvy’ which features one end made of black cloth and the other of white cloth,” says Poling. “In addition to dolls, the museum has an array of doll and doll house furniture and clothing – even scrimshaw limb replacements made for a small doll!”

Heritage Village Museum is also home to the Millie Huehn Collection of Doll and Fashion Research Books, Catalogs, and Magazines - a wonderful and extensive resource for researchers.

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:
Turn of the Century and Flapper Brides
Antique Spotlight -- Early American Dolls
Antique Spotlight -- Dolls in the Victorian Age

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