PLASTIC 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 interrupts.

And will in stillness dwell.

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.

75-BigDollsPoster-1

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.

75-cissyPink-Toy-1

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.

75-SonjaAndCinderella-Toy-1

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.