A 19th Century American Girl

By Carly Benedict

This week, our object is a doll that dates from the mid to late 19th century and belonged to Gertrude Van Order DuBois. The doll is an African American woman wearing clothing typical of the period. She is dressed in a pink blouse and floral skirt, a white apron, and a wide-brimmed brown cap. She is made entirely out of cloth and stuffed. Her head is knitted and has beads for eyes and sewn-on facial features.

Dolls have not only been a part of American culture since the country’s founding, but they’ve also been a worldwide staple for thousands of years. Humans have always been fascinated with images and the visual portrayal of their own species, so it makes sense that dolls became common in almost every culture.

The earliest dolls were made out of materials that we would find unusual today.  In ancient Egypt, dolls made out of pottery were common and in ancient Greece, dolls were made out of baked clay and wood. Amazingly, dolls in ancient Greece and Rome often had articulated limbs that could be moved around and posed. More modern dolls didn’t have moveable limbs until the 19th century! Along with clay and wood, bone, fur, and wax were also common materials.

Early dolls were used as playthings but could have other uses as well. They were often used for educational purposes or as elements in religious and magic rituals. It seems like dolls were used mainly by girls in most cultures throughout history. In ancient Greece when girls got married, they would dedicate their dolls to the local goddess as a way of marking their passage into womanhood.

Dolls continued to be made all throughout history around the world up into the 19th century. Dolls were usually made at home, but during the Industrial Revolution, they began to be mass-produced in factories. The mass-produced dolls were quite expensive due in part to being made out of porcelain, so doll making at home was still a common practice up until the early 20th century. Dolls made at home were often made out of whatever scraps of fabric were lying around at the time. They were also often crudely rendered because they were made by ordinary people who didn’t have access to the best materials.

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African American dolls have a particularly rich history in American folk art as well. Originally, cloth rag dolls were made by slaves for their children to play with. These dolls were highly prized and cherished, for slave children didn’t have many other things to play with. African American dolls were not mass-produced until after the Civil War, when their popularity in both America and Europe increased. These factory-made dolls were very far from perfect, however. The dolls were often offensive caricatures of the appearances of African Americans. Often times, porcelain doll makers would take the heads of the white dolls and merely paint them black, resulting in a bizarre looking doll with dark skin and Caucasian features. These offensive dolls promoted racism against African Americans and the appalling blackface iconography that became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The first mass-produced African American dolls with realistic facial features didn’t come out until the 1960’s. If African American children during the mid to late 19th century wanted a doll that actually looked like them, then they would have to make one at home.

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This doll in our collection is a beautiful example of a homemade cloth doll. It seems that whoever created it was meticulous in their craftsmanship and took time and care while making it. The lovely clothing and delicate rendering of the face gives the doll an appearance of being a normal every day woman which is much nicer than the highly offensive dolls being manufactured at the same time. Any child, but more importantly any African American child, would be proud to call this doll their own.

Sources:

Dolls from the Index of American Design.” National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art: Washington, DC. Web. 20 October 2016.

Interesting History of Dolls.” History of Dolls. Web. 20 October 2016.

Unkenholz, Tim. “If You Think Dolls Are Creepy Now, Just Wait Til You See Their Origins…ViralNova. Web. 20 October 2016.

“Dolls and Dollhouses.” Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.: New York. Web. 20 October 2016.

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