In the cookie-cutter conservative era of the 1950s, even good, wholesome girls were undressing Elvis, and not just in their minds. Young women across America indulged their fashion-fueled fantasies with little paper playmates of the rock-’n'-roll king, the latest subject from a thriving paper-doll industry that knew its audience well.
“Young women identified with her independence, even if they could not yet claim it for themselves.”
During the mid-20th century, the popularity of paper dolls peaked and production boomed like never before. By then, the medium was well-established as a cheap way for young people to make believe: You could be Martha Washington, carefully selecting a regal wardrobe, or a rebellious teen-queen cruising around with famous rock idols. But these simple-seeming toys have a complicated past.
Modern paper dolls are actually descendants of the 18th-century jumping-jack, or “pantin,” as it was known in France. These jointed paper figures were used by adults as puppets to satirize the noble classes, and didn’t come with removable outfits. By the mid-1700s, paper dolls with changeable wardrobes began appearing in fashion centers like London, Paris, and Berlin, generally as advertisements to showcase the latest styles. The big breakthrough came in 1796, with the invention of lithography. This new printing method utilized flat limestone plates marked with oil or wax, and allowed publishers to create larger runs of exquisitely detailed, hand-colored paper figures.
Featuring popular characters from books, comic strips, and eventually films, as well as real-life celebrities, paper dolls suddenly captured the imagination of children everywhere. For the first time, kids of all economic levels could play with their pop-culture idols, and the paper-doll industry took note, focusing on products that would market well to young ones.
The earliest paper doll made explicitly for children was S&J Fuller’s “Little Fanny,” produced in London in 1810, followed by the Boston-based J. Belcher’s “The History and Adventures of Little Henry” in 1812. These paper characters accompanied small toy books, or “chapbooks,” and were designed to act out various scenes as their narratives unfolded. Celebrity paper dolls joined the industry in the 1830s, beginning with those modeled after Swedish ballet star Marie Taglioni and her elaborate stage outfits.
Paper-doll and ephemera collector Linda Ocasio, creator of the blog The Paper Collector, explains that chapbooks were designed to teach kids certain lessons, with detailed outfits serving to reinforce each morality tale. “These early paper dolls were included with stories about a child going through some challenges and making the right choices, with different scenes to show that progression,” says Ocasio.
In “Little Fanny,” the title character is a vain little girl who sneaks off to the park with her maid, only to be robbed of all her possessions, even her clothes. Aimed at upper-class children, the book traces Fanny’s journey as she works her way out of poverty and returns to her mother, changing outfits with each chapter. By the end of the book, Fanny has turned her attention to the more productive pastime of reading, rather than idly playing with toys.
While some 19th-century dolls were sold as complete sets like these, others were designed as promotional items. In 1840, Godey’s Lady Book became one of the first magazines to include paper dolls in its pages, though many newspapers and journals soon followed. Other advertising paper dolls were given away for free, as a type of trade card, or inserted into a product’s packaging as a premium to enhance sales.
“You might have to collect a label and then send away for a doll,” says Ocasio, “or sometimes it might have been stuck in the actual package, the way you got a toy in the Cracker Jack box.” Companies like Pillsbury Flour, Hood’s Sarsaparilla, Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour, and McLaughlin’s XXXX Brand Coffee included paper dolls with their products for decades, banking on the purchasing power of whiny children. Ideally, if they wanted the entire family of characters made for a certain brand, kids would urge their parents to keep buying the company’s products.
In a time before photography was widely available, colorful illustrations offered an intoxicating new form of entertainment. “The anthropomorphic dolls from the mid-19th century are not like a comic book Mickey Mouse,” says Ocasio. “They’re these beautifully illustrated pigs or cows dressed up as human beings.” The fact that such incredible detail was lavished on disposable toys is often surprising to modern viewers, but during the 19th century, this sort of romanticized artwork was all the rage.
The most successful paper-doll enterprise, the McLoughlin Brothers company, got its start in 1828 with ornate, woodblock-printed paper dolls. McLoughlin would eventually become the largest paper-doll manufacturer in the world, famous for its creations with alliterative names like Dottie Dimple, Lottie Love, and Jenny June. Besides selling its own sets, McLoughlin also supplied other brands with promotional dolls and licensed its designs to newspapers and magazines that hoped to boost circulation.
The company eventually diversified to include all manner of printed materials, from board games to picture books, each utilizing its signature style of bright, artist-rendered imagery. In addition to popularizing new color-printing techniques like chromolithography, McLoughlin’s success also cemented the trend for tabbed paper-doll clothing. The simple, yet ingenious, use of paper tabs replaced sealing wax to hold outfits onto their matching dolls. Eventually, McLoughlin Brothers was sold to Milton Bradley.
Meanwhile in Europe, Raphael Tuck and Sons cornered the high-end paper-doll market. Founded in 1866, Tuck adopted a thicker cardboard material to achieve higher-quality printing, securing the Queen’s “Royal Warrant of Appointment” in 1893. Tuck became most famous for its trendy postcard designs, though the company’s series of pre-cut “Dressing Dolls,” like the Bridal Party from the 1890s, are stunning pieces of paper ephemera.
Advancements in printing technology also allowed paper dolls to be more individualized than standard porcelain or plastic dolls. “You can get a lot more detail in an illustration than you can in a mold that’s made to be mass-produced,” says Jenny Taliadoros, who manages the paper-doll publishing company Paper Studio Press and has the paper-doll gene in her family: Taliadoros’s grandmother was a major collector, and her mother was an artist who created her own paper-doll series.
Taliadoros believes the intricacy of paper dolls is due in part to their link to fashion illustration, as many paper-doll artists also worked for the garment industry. “A lot of our current artists were fashion illustrators in the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s. And a couple of them were really big names, like Jim Howard, who was considered one of the very top illustrators in the U.S., or David Wolfe, who was a top illustrator in Europe.” Their beautiful drawings for designers and departments stores translated well to paper dolls, especially since many sets focused on the importance of expressive clothing.
For many collectors, artistry isn’t the only draw—it’s the ghost of a paper doll’s previous owner that makes the vintage objects so appealing. Whether from 20 or 200 years ago, the personalities of these little girls and boys are particularly strong in handmade paper dolls, often constructed by children whose parents couldn’t afford to purchase toys.
A common variety of handmade paper dolls are “catalog dolls,” made from discarded department-store catalogs, like the ubiquitous tomes from Sears, Roebuck & Co. Children would carefully cut around a model, and then find various items of clothing that best aligned with the illustrated or photographed model’s limbs.
Other kids traced images from books, or created drawings entirely from their own imaginations. “The best is when you find a paper doll where the child made her own clothes for it, or actually created her own doll,” says Ocasio. “Some of those handmade dolls are so exquisitely done, they’re in the realm of folk art.”
The oldest dolls in Ocasio’s collection are from a McLoughlin “Tom Thumb” series dating to the 1870s, and were found with a handwritten letter gifting the set from one girl to another. “It’s the one I cherish the most,” says Ocasio, who received the dolls from her mother-in-law after she discovered them in a Florida antiques shop. “Although they’re not in the best shape,” says Ocasio, “the history and letter that goes along with them is really intriguing.” What became of the young women that shared these dolls?
Though a specific doll’s provenance is often difficult to trace, the historical moments they document are generally clear. While much of the paper doll’s political power was lost after the original pantin puppets were translated to children’s toys in the early 19th century, they continued to reflect episodes of social change, particularly involving women and their growing public presence.
Take Fluffy Ruffles, for example, a character originating in a 1906 cartoon for the New York Herald. Fluffy was an independent, career-minded woman struggling to make it in a man’s world.
“Suddenly, you had more women entering the workforce as secretaries, or starting to work outside the home,” explains Ocasio. “That led to a lot of discomfort in the predominantly male workplace, so this cartoon character was almost a safety valve for those fears. Whatever job she got, she lost it immediately because she was so gorgeous and charming that men interfered with her doing her work. Of course, the only reason she needed a job was because her inheritance fell through, so that put her in a different class altogether.”
Despite her silly name, Fluffy became such an icon that real women began imitating her: Macy’s created a clothing line named after her, and the Herald held a contest to find women that embodied her personality. “It’s really interesting how that particular comic strip and paper doll captured the imagination of young women who identified with her independence, even if they could not yet claim it for themselves,” says Ocasio. Eventually, characters like Fluffy Ruffles were supplanted by stronger female role models, including the glamorous reporter Brenda Starr, whose comic strip debuted in 1940.
Since the heyday of paper dolls preceded the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, non-white characters are few and far between, and those that do depict other ethnicities were often derogatory in some way. Yet, the lead character in Jackie Ormes’s “Torchy” series defied the trend.
As the first successful African-American female cartoonist, Ormes created many comics starring black characters, like her “Torchy in Heartbeats” strip, which began in 1950. The series followed Torchy’s globe-trotting adventures as she chased after romance and generally led a life of intrigue, though Ormes also included difficult themes of racial and social injustice. The comic culminated in 1954 with Torchy and her boyfriend combating environmental discrimination in a fictional American town called Southville.
Ormes’s strip also regularly included a paper-doll set called “Torchy Togs,” showcasing the lead character’s stylish, modern wardrobe. Eventually, Ormes would go on to design the Patty-Jo doll, the first African-American doll aimed at a newly prospering middle class.
After the rise of Barbie in the 1960s, the paper-doll market shrunk drastically, despite its attempts to keep up with pop culture by selling sets of the Monkees or The Beatles. Though the world of toys has continued to change drastically, as visible in the many high-tech gadgets aimed at children, the simple pleasures of paper dolls haven’t been entirely forgotten.
Taliadoros knows there’s still an audience drawn to the artistry of printed paper, though ironically, today it’s made up of more adults than kids. “I’ve had so many people call up, in tears, telling me about their childhood memories and how happy they are to be connected again with something they love so much,” says Taliadoros. “It’s a really happy place to be.”