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PLASTIC FACES, FIXED SMILES – YESTERYEAR’S DOLLS

Not Los Angeles. Nor old movie stars full of Botox to make them “look younger” (really makes them look like corpses, but I digress). It could be a metaphor of that West Coast city and many of its inhabitants.

Margaret O'Brian by Three

I’m talking about My World. A small, form-fitting world populated by beautifully dressed, if slightly dusty hard plastic people. Mostly girls, a few men and boys. The girls are my favorites because they take me back in time and spirit as effectively as any wormhole in the fabric of time. When I hold one of my dolls, I’m young again …and it is a time and place when my best friends were dolls.

You must not blame the girls for their plasticity. They are not plastic by choice, after all. I wonder, had they been given their druthers, if they would have preferred living flesh. I don’t know. As it is, they have stayed young long after time would have ravaged their beauty. You never know. So many “real” people choose to emulate my plastic pals, perhaps they are the model for women of the future as the world drifts to them. They become iconic images of past and future.

I have an awful lot of dolls. When I start taking pictures of them, I inevitably find myself concentrating on those I can most easily access, the dolls on easy-to-reach shelves. Others are high above my head, often crowded together and difficult to photograph in situ.

My collection is mostly hard plastic dolls from the 1950s. Some are from the 1960s and a very few from later, the early 1970s. I also have quite a few older composition dolls. These were made of sawdust, glue and paint and typically come from the 1930s and early 1940s.

It’s interesting to see how the concept of dolls changes through the decades. It’s a reflection of how girls and childhood are viewed by society as a whole. From the grownup, almost motherly dolls of the teens and twenties, to all the pretty long-haired girl dolls who dominated the industry from the 1940s through the early 1960s — you can tell what people thought of girls by the dolls with which they played.

Suddenly, in the mid 1960s, dolls looked either as if they’d taken bad acid or became fashion dolls resembling Hollywood stars. The dolls industry has always been in love with Hollywood, of course. Shirley Temple, Margaret O’Brien, Sonja Henie were just a few of many dolls based on movie stars. Book characters have been a long time favorites too as well as historical characters. Today’s American Girl dolls come with books of their own and the tradition continues.

The trend to fashion dolls moved from Hollywood to the ubiquitous Barbie … probably the longest lasting fad in doll history. I don’t understand it having never liked Barbie. Maybe it’s an age thing. By the time Barbie appeared, my doll-playing days were over and my collecting days were long in the future.

Today’s dolls range from very weird to traditional, soft-bodied girl dolls. Despite endless attempts to turn dolls electronic, dolls have stubbornly resisted. They have remained toys requiring imagination, not batteries. Everything else appears to have fallen to some version of computerization, but dolls are still silent little plastic people to whom little girls can talk when no one else will listen.

Are they spooky, my silent friends? Not to me. To me they are merely peaceful and quiet, lacking any mechanism for speech. Yet they are also eloquent. They watch. They see. All the decades through which they have survived are captured in their oddly expressive glass eyes. Their sweet, sometimes sad smiles.

Do dolls covet and yearn? I think they want only to be cuddled by some little girl. A little girl enchanted by having finally found a friend who listens and never interrupt. And will in stillness dwell.

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Plastic Pals — Dolls of Yesteryear

My first doll. I got her for my 5th birthday in 1952. Annabelle was only produced by Madame Alexander for one year. She was my first and my favorite. I adored her and she was always with me.

Annabelle-48

This pretty little girl is a 16-inch Toni by Ideal. She is virtually identical to the doll I got for my sixth birthday. Her dress was made just for her.

Toni-16-Platinum

I thought it would be fun to take “toy lens” style pictures of toys, in my case, dolls. I used to be a serious doll collector. Although I’m no longer a doll collector, I still have quite a large doll collection.

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The three big dolls (above) were taken using a poster format. The two big beautiful girls are Madame Alexander‘s Binnie Walker (left), Winnie Walker (middle), and on the right, one of the rarer large Ideal Bride dolls. She was the last Ideal doll before they started making high-heeled fashion dolls. All the dresses were made for these dolls by a seamstress. The bride’s dress is amazing.

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Meet Cissy from Madame Alexander, one of the most popular fashion dolls ever made. This is an original from the early 1960s. There have been versions of Cissy continuously through the years, including now, though their dimensions vary quite a bit. What they have in common are joints in all the right places, height and high-heeled feet.

The lady in pink (above) is wearing an original outfit by a doll clothing designer based on an outfit she remembered her mother wearing in the 1950s. The cloth was from a dress I found at the Salvation army. I loved the fabric, so she made two of these outfits, one as a gift to me and one for herself to sell. You would not believe how expensive doll clothing is. It costs more than my clothing. A lot more.

Below is Princess Elizabeth, currently Queen Elizabeth II. Not her original outfit. The coronet is original, but broken.

From the early 1940s, an early composition Madame Alexander doll, the child who became the current queen of England.

From the early 1940s, an early composition Madame Alexander doll, the child who became the current queen of England.

Below, just for fun, is the most interesting doll in the world. He would be the most interesting man in the world. He was the most interesting doll in the world, having survived the charge of the Light Brigade to become Prime Minister of Great Britain during the second World War. Winston Churchill, one of Effanbee’s historical collection, is forever predicting victory.

Below, are two Madame Alexander dolls. On the left, Sonja Henie, an original from around 1940. She is not plastic. She’s made of something called “composition,” a combination a sawdust, glue, and paint. You have to be careful with old composition dolls. They date from no later than the early 1940s, after which dolls were made with hard plastic. If composition gets damp or too dry, they fall disintegrate. Literally. On the right is a 1976 Cinderella in a Disney-style gown. Hard plastic.

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Sonja’s wig is not original, but it is mohair as was the original. However, the original wig didn’t have bangs. I simply couldn’t find a mohair wig that was quite right. I could have gotten an acrylic wig that was the right style, but it would have been the wrong material. Sometimes, you just have to compromise. Her dress and skates are original, as are her tights.

Here are three big composition girls, Nancy Ann — on the left — is the only doll to have ever received her own letter delivered by the U.S. Postal service. At least in my house.

Composition girls

Finally, Garry’s favorites — the famous dolls. The shelf of fame contains Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Winstons Churchill, John Wayne (twice), Bogie and Jimmy Cagney (from Yankee Doodle Dandy).

The doll's shelf of fame.

The doll’s shelf of fame.

There are dolls all over the house, except the kitchen and bathrooms. A couple of hundred of them, at last count and others in boxes. They are guaranteed friendly and chat quietly at night, while we sleep.

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Daily Prompt: Prized Possession — Annabelle

Annabelle was a doll made by Madame Alexander. She was in production for one year only — 1952 — the year I turned five.

My mother loved dolls, but she had grown up poor. She had only had one doll in her entire life, a china-headed doll she got from her mother. That was a big deal in a large, poor family. There were 6 other brothers and sisters to keep fed, clothed and who also had birthdays. Mom loved her doll and when one day, the doll fell off her bed and broke her china head, my mother was inconsolable. She said she had cried for weeks and everyone was sympathetic, but she never got another doll.

Then there was me, her first daughter and the one who loved dolls as much as she had. My sister, who came afterwards, never cared for them as I did.

Annabelle - by Madame Alexander - 1952

Annabelle – by Madame Alexander – 1952

Annabelle was the first of a line of expensive dolls with which I was gifted through my girlhood. Annabelle was followed by Toni,the big 24″ Toni with platinum hair and the whole set of curlers and “permanent wave” solution. After that, there was Betsy Wetsy, though my mother, in the midst of potty training my younger sister couldn’t imagine wanting a doll that wet herself. Many other dolls would follow. But Annabelle always had a special place in my heart. I talked to her, slept with her, dragged her around. I loved her through restringing, rewigging, repainting and redressing.

After all my other dolls had passed along into dolly heaven, I still had Annabelle. Right before I left for Israel, I gave her to my friend’s daughter … and Loren still has her to this day.

Annabelle Too

Annabelle Too

Some years back, I went hunting for Annabelle. I knew I couldn’t get my original girl back. She was Loren’s now. Even though Loren was grown with a son of her own, she was not parting with Annabelle. Most of Madame Alexander’s dolls had long production runs, but Annabelle was a one year only limited edition. But I found her, and she has rejoined my life. I even have her original box, traveling beauty supply kit and tag. She’s perfect and obviously had never been loved quite as voraciously as I love her predecessor.

I still do give her a furtive hug now and again. Sometimes, the best person in the world to talk to is a doll that will always smile and understand. That’s my Annabelle.

Portrait of Annabelle

Portrait of Annabelle

Plastic Faces, Plastic Smiles

I collect hard plastic and composition dolls from the 1930s through 1960s, with a few a little newer and a few a bit older.

Two “identical” Margaret (Margaret O’Brien) dolls.

In theory, every doll of a “type” is the same as every other doll of that type. All Toni dolls should look the same. But they don’t. No two dolls look exactly the same.

Cissy, as a bride. Madame Alexander, all original.

Minor variations in how they set in their molds and were finished after being removed from their molds. The person who painted them … and what batch of paint colors were used. Up through the 1960s, all dolls’ faces were hand painted, so there were always small differences between them. Many dolls even today are hand-painted.

Cissy, in her couturier outfit made especially for her. Madame Alexander, restored.

Eyebrows will be shaped differently, some with more or less arch to it. Lips may be poutier or more rounded and the two sides of the face don’t usually exactly match. Like real people.

Sixteen inch Tony in designer dress, platinum hair. A very popular doll.

Dolls also came in different sizes, and sixteen inch Toni bore only a sisterly resemblance to twenty-three inch Toni.

Another sixteen inch Toni, dressed for a patriotic holiday … auburn hair, this time.

Big sister Toni, 22 inches, and all original, even her hair … a color that I cannot name since this color wig is no longer produced.

Twenty two-inch Toni, all original, including her wig.

To me, my dolls have their own faces, as obviously different to my eyes as are people. My plastic friends with their plastic faces, smiling gently day and night.

Dolls, Plants, and the Light From the East …

Facing east towards the deck and the woods, the morning light streams in … so the plants live in front the french doors that lead to the deck. Of course, that means we virtually never open the doors because we’d have to move the plants. So, we use the dutch door in the kitchen. But the dining room doors are lovely

On the top shelf, above the dolls, you can see three of my Tang dynasty Chinese zodiac figures. The cradle with the baby doll in it (it’s a 1950s Betsy Wetsy) … I built it from a kit and painted it myself. Underneath the cradle and the dolls is the sewing machine I don’t know how to use. But I might learn someday. Yeah, sure.

Do you see George Washington and Abraham Lincoln back there?

There are a lot more dolls in the dining room … in fact, they occupy every surface on which a doll can stand. The big green thing on the chair is my 4 string mountain dulcimer. It is beautiful. But you can’t tell because it’s in its case.

The big Dracaena Marginata has been with me for close to 12 years and urgently needs repotting. It’s so heavy and tall it is a hard for me to move it, much less re-pot it. I’m going to add some topsoil to the pot and give it a feeding and hope that will do the job. If it gets any bigger, I’ll have to re-home it anyhow.

I got the two Christmas cacti as cuttings and they bloom beautifully several times a year. Ignoring them is to the key to success. I call it “benevolent neglect.” Succulents thrive on it.

The Office

 

It’s full of dolls on shelves. My photos hang on the walls next to paintings, an original Donald Duck cover art print, a signed Leonard Bergman print of Jerusalem. More dolls, some in a cabinet, some just standing wherever there’s a bit of space, and the clock chirps each hour with a different bird song.

My cameras are everywhere. The bookcase is mostly full of boxes containing software I haven’t gotten around to installing. If I wait long enough, it will be obsolete and never be installed. Protein bars, sports drinks full of electrolytes. The modem and router live next to the printer. Tired keyboards that still work and I hang on to lest we have a keyboard emergency. A variety of long dead cellphones here, there and elsewhere. A paean to the speed at which technology changes.

Manuals I wrote, and manuals for equipment and software I haven’t had for years. A few pieces of antique glass and pottery.

More dolls.

Manila envelopes, spare ink cartridges, reams of paper and a variety of medications, flashlights, old toys, and art that I wish I could afford to frame. Some of my friends are artists … they gave me wonderful artwork, but I’m too poor to do anything but feel bad that it isn’t on the wall. But even if I framed it, there’s no room to put it up.

My world, in one room. My room. It’s cluttered, needs to be repainted because Peptol Bismol pink is not a color to live with long-term. I can’t remember what I was thinking when I painted it this color. Maybe I felt it was cheerful. It is very cheerful. Exceedingly pink.

The little dolls live all together in a cabinet. Tightly packed, but I’m sure they don’t mind. Maybe two dozen more live in boxes in the closet.

My desk is huge and made of solid oak.My favorite pair of computer glasses fell behind the desk in July. It’s now September and they are still there. I can see them, but I can’t get them. No one can reach them and the desk is far too heavy to move without disassembling it. So there my glasses remain. Maybe, someday, we’ll figure out how to get to them.

There are many things back there. It’s quite the treasure trove of lost items. Permanently lost, probably.

This is where I write, edit photographs, listen to audiobooks and answer email. I play online Scrabble, pay the bills and manage the household. The house is my home, but this is my home in my home.

 

Weekly Writing Challenge: Old Favorite Things

As a child, I collected books. I had no money of my own, but my mother was a sucker for books, and though almost everything else from those log ago days have been lost, I still have some of the books I loved as a child.

Three Margaret O’Brien dolls, from Madame Alexander, all dressed in original clothing.

I was born to collect, but lack of funds and a home of my own limited me until I hit my stride as a married, working adult. Armed with money, I could choose from an entire world of beautiful things. Although many collections have come and gone, three things have remained constant: the dolls of my girlhood, antique porcelain, and books.

I no longer collect. The shelves, walls, bookcases and every other place that might house a collectible is full. The “No Vacancy” sign has gone up on our lives. We are in the “cutting down,” not acquiring stage.

She was my second doll, for my sixth birthday..

My favorite dolls — now a mere couple of hundred from who-knows-how-many — surround me. In every room, in hallways, on high shelves and in glass-fronted cabinets, dolls stand, smile and wave. At night, they whisper secrets about the things they’ve seen, places and people they’ve known. I wish I could hear them, but their voices are too soft. They speak amongst themselves, not for human ears.

Cissy, the original and greatest ever fashion doll.

I restored her, including recreating as closely as I could, her original outfit. No small achievement since I really can’t sew.

I’ve held onto a modest, but satisfying collection of my antique Chinese porcelain too.

The dolls were born of my  never-ending attempt to reconnect with something happy from a difficult childhood, but the porcelain grew from my love of history.

A Han pot, probably used in a kitchen. Han pottery was the first mass-produced pottery, the “Tupperware:” of its day (206 BC – 220 AD)

I wish my porcelain could talk because oh, the stories it could tell. When I hold a perfect 5,000 year-old pot, I imagine the lives that pot has touched. How many kitchens it has lived in, how many different things were stored in it.

This style of Tang pottery was entirely decorative, but not for kings or princes, but to add beauty to the homes of ordinary peasants. (618 – 906 AD)

I feel a little buzz when I hold the very oldest of my porcelain pieces –a painted vase from China’s neolithic period — and imagine the history to which it has been witness. It was made at a time when Europeans were still living in caves and wearing animal skins, yet the Chinese were making painted pots of fired river clay, pre-porcelain from the earliest human civilization. I have Han pot, a Tang horseman, vases and some bronze pieces that span thousands of years.

At night, when I take off my earrings, I drop it into a Qing dynasty Tongzhi/Guangxu late 19th century “Cabaret dish.” I have Eucalyptus branches in a Jun vase with a shiny black glaze that at first I couldn’t believe was real, but turned out to be genuine.

Qianlong (1736-1795) porcelain.

I have a set of Sui musicians, and although I know they have been repaired and are not entirely original (I would never have been able to afford them if they were perfect … they’d be in a museum, not on my mantel), I love them no less for their needing reconstruction. If I were 1,500 years old, I’d probably need a bit of reconstruction too.

These are a few of my favorite things, but my favorite of all favorites is Annabelle.

Annabelle was made for one year by Madame Alexander. The year was 1952 and for my 5th birthday, my mother gave me Annabelle. How I loved her. She slept with me. I talked to her. I dressed her each day and when her wig wore out, my mother sent her to a doll hospital and had her touched up, restrung and re-wigged. When I left for Israel, I still had Annabelle, the one and only surviving physical piece of my childhood. I didn’t want to take her with me, so I gave her to my best friend’s daughter … who has her still.

A few years ago I was lucky to find another Annabelle, one identical to the doll I’d gotten for my birthday. And she is still my favorite doll, my favorite almost-a-person.

This is Annabelle. My perfect doll friend.

She is my friend and I still talk to her.

There are dolls all over the house and everyone talks to them, the same way we talk to our dogs. We don’t expect them to answer, but they are very good listeners.

The pottery is elegantly arrayed in my living room, on the mantel, in display cases in the dining room and a few pieces in the bedroom. Dolls stand atop every bookcase, on shelves throughout the house. Several hundred pairs of eyes, watching me. I like it.