The world has changed in myriad ways — huge and subtle — since I grew up. When I was a kid, none of us, regardless of how much money our parents had or didn’t have, got everything. You wanted everything, sure, because kids always want everything … but you got something. In my house, since we didn’t celebrate Christmas, birthdays were the big gift-giving day.
Each year on my birthday from when I was three until I was eight, I got one really nice doll. When I was five, I got “Annabelle,” the 1952 special doll from Madame Alexander. She would be my favorite for the rest of my life. Over her long life (she was born in 1952) she has been rewigged, restrung, repainted, and redressed half a dozen times.
I really played with my dolls. They were my friends. I talked to them. I told them everything and I took them everywhere. Everything I did, felt, hoped for, and feared, my dolls knew.
My dolls understood. Always.
When I was six, I got Toni. She was Revlon’s “flagship” girl doll with hair that could be “permanent waved” using a doll version of the Toni Permanent Wave kit. The set was just tiny plastic rollers and sugar-water and they didn’t really curl hair. They just made it sticky … which attracted ants. So then you had to wash it and you were lucky if the wig didn’t come right off her head.
There was Betsy Wetsy — also from Revlon, I believe (Tiny Tears was made by American Character). Those were the memorable dolls. Lots of little 8″ Ginnie dolls too and too many outfits to recall. Ginnie was in my day what Barbie was to the next generations of girls. It is perhaps a reflection of how the concept of girlhood changed during those years. By the time I turned 9, it was all about books.
From then on, I got books for my birthdays, though usually one other “special” thing too. One year, my beloved bicycle arrived. It was much too big for me to ride. I was a tiny wisp of a thing, but also, the only 9-year-old with a titanium frame Dutch racing bike. I had blocks on the pedals and I had to ride standing up because no way could I reach the seat or use the coaster brakes sitting down. But I grew a few inches. So, by the time I was an adolescent, I could reach the pedals without help. And, I knew I had the greatest bike ever. Tiger Racer and me … we flew!
When I was 11 I got a little transistor radio. It was a big deal, the ultra high-tech of the late 1950s. I was the only kid who had my very own portable radio. After that memory fades …
I slept with my dolls.
As I headed into my 50s, I began searching for the dolls with which I had grown up. Collecting is insidious and doll collecting even more so. I developed a bizarre lust for dolls. I didn’t know I had become a collector until I began to buy reference books so I could identify dolls by model, year, manufacturer, etc. Reference book are the significator of any kind of collector. When your reference collection is far more complete than the local library, you are a collector. Accept it. Deal with it.
These pictures are a sampling of the dolls. I tried to capture something of that ephemeral sweetness the dolls of my generation had. Perhaps show a hint of why they still give me a warm glow when I look at them. They never argue, always forgive. And they never complain and don’t mind if you drag them around by one leg with their foreheads scraping the sidewalk.
My mother loved dolls, but had grown up poor. She 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 six brothers and sisters, so a special toy meant a lot.
Mom loved that doll. One day, the doll fell off her bed and broke her china head. My mother was inconsolable. She said she cried for weeks. 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 was the first expensive doll with which I was gifted in my girlhood. Annabelle was followed by Toni, a big 24″ Toni with platinum hair and a set of curlers plus “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 who 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 eventually passed into dolly heaven, I still had Annabelle. Right before I left for Israel, I gave her to my friend’s daughter. Loren still has her today.
Some years back, I went hunting for a replacement Annabelle. I found her, and she 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 enthusiastically as I loved 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.
I collected dolls for years. Collecting is easy. Restoring is more of a challenge. Before I gave up collecting, I learned to restore my old dolls.
Up front, let me say that I’m not crafty. I can’t sew, crochet, knit, or carve. I can’t change the cartridges in my printer. I can write and I can take pictures. I can draw a bit. And I can cook. Otherwise, I’m pretty much a washout as a craftsperson. But I collected dolls for years. If you collect, there are things you need to do yourself because even if you have lots of money, finding someone else to do them is difficult … maybe impossible. I learned because I had no choice.
This is the best work I did. After Ana McGuffey, I pretty much stopped collecting and promptly forgot everything I ever knew. Use it or lose it.
Composition was the material favored by quality dollmakers such as American Character and Madame Alexander before the 1940s when hard plastic became the material of choice. The changeover from composition to hard plastic was gradual. Some composition dolls were produced as late as the 1950s, though not many.
Composition is basically sawdust, glue, varnish and paint. It is a very good molding material, but it disintegrates over time. Dampness rots it. Excessive heat will destroy it. Time will have its way with it. Many dolls I love are old composition dolls. Finding these dolls in pristine condition can be impossible. If available, they are costly. Lacking money, I decided to learn to fix them. Old composition dolls in a state of deterioration are not difficult to acquire. If you can repair them yourself, you can get rare dolls for short money … but you will invest many long hours of yourself.
Ana McGuffey (of the reader of the same name) was one of Madame Alexander’s most popular character dolls for decades, from the 1910s through the 1940s. Although her face changed with the times, she always had her hair in braids. She wore a pinafore with a floral print dress. Stocking and buttoned shoes.
I finally got a 20″ Ana McGuffey. Half of each foot was rotted away. The paint on her face was chipped and faded and her wig and clothing were gone. She was in pieces and needed restringing.
I replaced her feet by modeling them using a clay-like epoxy material. This stuff is used for modeling all kinds of stuff. It’s difficult to use, but forms a very hard, resin-like substance when it dries.
I restrung her, repainted her face — many failed attempts before I got it sort of right. I found a wig that looked like her original, though not the same material.
Her original wig was made of mohair. While you can get mohair wigs for restoring dolls, they are frightfully expensive and not particularly durable. I also don’t like the way they look, so I went with modern polyurethane. I made the dress and the pinafore. This is not an area in which I excel, but no one was making clothing for this doll. It was me or no dress. I could easily get dresses that would fit her, but they wouldn’t look like her original clothing. I wanted Ana to look close to her original.
She also needed a flowery straw hat and I’d gotten pretty good at buying plain hats and decorating them. I found the stocking and shoes that sufficed, though they weren’t quite what I wanted. I haven’t mastered making shoes, but all things considered I’m proud of this piece of work.
This is Ana McGuffey, Madame Alexander, circa 1930 – 1940. Restored by me.
Old dolls, coffee mugs. Clocks and canisters. Computers and CDs. All plastic. A gallery of plastic at home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.