Probably since humans have been making clothes out of fabric, they’ve made dolls for their kids. In fact, the British Museum possesses a rare, well-preserved linen doll from the early Roman Empire. Often these homemade cloth or “rag dolls”—the term for dolls constructed out of any kind of fabric—are pieced together from rags and scraps of fabric found around the house, although they also can be created from high-quality cotton, silk, velvet, or felt.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that rag dolls were mass-produced by American and British manufacturers, who printed the dolls’ features on flat fabric sheets and then cut, stitched, and stuffed the toys. At times, embellishments such as clothing or wigs from human hair or mohair were produced separately and added later. Some companies chose to have the doll’s face and hair hand-painted with oil colors after the figure was put together. In the 1880s, “worsted dolls,” a type of doll made of needle-stitched stockinette—a soft knitted silk or cotton—and featuring beaded eyes, were manufactured.

Rag-doll lines often got their start when a mother was urged to make more and more of these beloved companions for the children of her friends and family. Sometimes there would be so many requests, the dolls could be put into production at small studios or factories. For example, Emma E. Adams and her sister Marietta of Oswego, New York, gained notoriety at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 when the Columbian Exposition Commission named one of their creations—a doll with a handmade dress and red-white-and-blue ribbon sash—the Columbian Doll, the female personification of the United States.

Another famous cloth Columbian doll, Miss Columbia, belonged to a wealthy Boston woman named Elizabeth Richards Horton. Miss Columbia toured the world as a part of Horton’s International Doll Collection, which raised money for children’s charities. Another woman in Los Angeles, Mrs. Covey, created the Uncle Sam doll in 1901 as a male companion for Miss Columbia in her travels.

The Columbians were some of the earliest patriotic dolls in the U.S., manufactured until 1910. But Ms. Adams’ success was not the only homemade hit. An even better known doll maker of the time, Martha Chase, a doctor’s wife in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, made sturdy, jointed, and natural-looking dolls from 10-inches-tall to life-size. In 1910, she invented the waterproof, full-size Hospital Dolls, which were adult and baby figures used in medical training. In 1919, Louise Kampes began producing the realistic Kamkins Doll, with its human hair wig and intricately designed clothes, out of her Atlantic City studio.

Possibly the most famous rag doll in American history is Raggedy Ann. Originally a forgotten homemade toy, the doll got a new life when the illustrator Johnny Gruelle found it in his mother’s attic. Gruelle painted her a new face and began telling his only daughter stories about this character, Raggedy Ann. After his daughter’s death in 1916 at age 13, Gruelle published these stories, and soon the family was making dolls to sell. To Gruelle’s surprise, a childhood pal of his mother’s sent him Ann’s male companion, “Andy.”

The Gruelle family had a sensation on their hands as Raggedy Ann and Andy became a national phenomenon. Eventually, they licensed the manufacturing of the dolls, as well as other...

New technologies gave doll manufacturers the ability to mimic the more sophisticated look of bisque and composition dolls. Companies such as Steiff and Lenci used stiffened felt for the heads to create molded, lifelike features. The bodies, meanwhile, were often made of stockinette, which can be painted when stretched over a molded, hollow buckram base. English doll maker Norah Wellings sometimes used velvet for her doll heads, while others used velveteen—a cotton fabric with a short, thick pile—as a lower-quality substitute for velvet.

One of the most famous American doll makers was Izannah F. Walker, who patented her unique fabric-stiffening techniques in 1873. This gave her creations the appearance of imported German porcelain dolls. Walker dolls, like her hand-painted 1873 Solid Comfort dolls, are hugely popular among doll collectors, and she is often credited with designing the first commercially produced dolls in the United States. Other popular turn-of-the-century rag dolls included Philadelphia Baby produced around 1900 for the J.B. Sheppard and Co. department store and the Cole Family dolls created by Roxanna Elizabeth McGee Cole of Conway, Arkansas, in 1901, made of fine muslin that was hand-painted and stitched.

In Germany in 1877, Margaret Steiff founded the Steiff Company, which is now known for its teddy bears. During the company’s early days, its felt dolls portrayed a range of comical characters such as police officers, circus performers, and sailors. The company trademarked its “doll mark,” sewing a button inside each doll’s left ear, in 1905. Until 1926, the “Button-in-Ear” dolls contained a metal button with “STEIFF” in raised lettering.

When the 1920s rolled around, European companies had mastered the production of high-quality rag dolls, often called “art dolls,” designed by artists and built by master craftspeople. Käthe Kruse, wife of sculptor Max Kruse, in Germany and Enrico and Elena Scavini, who founded Lenci in Italy, were among the most esteemed art-doll makers. Their creations were highly detailed, expressive, and life-like.

In England, new models of rag dolls were designed as souvenirs commemorating celebrities such as the new king. One of the most successful of these doll makers was Chad Valley Co. Ltd. In 1926, Norah Wellings left this company to establish her own, Victoria Toy Works in Shropshire, England, which put out many ethnic dolls and storybook characters, identified by sewn-on labels.

As commercially made rag dolls became more and more popular in the last half of the 19th century, companies started putting out “printed cloth dolls” or “cut-out cloth dolls.” These were sold as printed fabrics, often of celebrities or storybook characters, and the buyer then had to cut out, sew, and stuff the toys him or herself. Thanks to the chromolithographic process used to make the prints, which ultimately ruined the fabrics, as well as normal wear-and-tear, very few of the printed cloth dolls made before 1900 have survived.

Some of the earliest known American cut-out dolls include Edward Peck’s 1884 Santa Claus; those made by cloth printers Laurence and Co., Boston; and Celia and Charity Smith’s 1892 dolls, which wore blue stockings and had sewing instructions printed directly on the fabric. In 1905, A.C. Finken created another well-loved printed doll, Sunny Jim, a caricature of an early 1800s gentleman, as a promotion for his Force Wheat Flakes breakfast cereal.

In fact, in the 1970s and ’80s, when Raggedy Ann and Andy were more popular than ever, cutout dolls also saw a revival. Newer collectible printed cloth dolls include the limited edition 1976 Miss Liberty Belle and 1970s Red Riding Hood. A sheet of four dolls—Cora, Agnes, Sylvia, and May—designed by Samuel Finburgh and first produced in 1916, made a comeback in the 1970s when they were reprinted by Hulbert Fabrics for the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art Museum

The American Folk Art Museum's website showcases current and past exhibitions along with their permanent collection… [read review or visit site]

Dollreference.com

Dollreference.com

This densely packed index of antique and vintage dolls claims to offer over 10,000 images of dolls from the 1800s … [read review or visit site]

Vintage Dolls of the 50s

Vintage Dolls of the 50s

Rhonda Wilson's collection of 1950s dolls, organized by name (Ginny and friends, Littlest Angel and friends, etc.) … [read review or visit site]

Anonymous Works

Anonymous Works

This blog combines American primitive folk art, vintage vernacular photography, outsider art, and other interesting… [read review or visit site]

Kaylees Korner of Collectible Dolls

Kaylees Korner of Collectible Dolls

Kaylee's extensive collection of vintage dolls from the 1930s to 90s. Click the balloons to browse. Though Kaylee s… [read review or visit site]

The Outsider Art Pages

The Outsider Art Pages

A modern look at folk and outsider art with a focus on what people are doing to keep these traditions alive. The si… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

Folk Art in Bottles

Folk Art in Bottles

Whether you call them Bottle Whimseys, Whimsey Bottles, Puzzle Bottles, or Whimsies, this site showcases great folk… [read review or visit site]

Index of American Design

Index of American Design

The Index of American Design project (1935-1942) was an effort to catalog American decorative arts objects from the… [read review or visit site]

Stoveburner.com

Stoveburner.com

A stunning collection of 162 images of stoveburners, those corroded cast iron elements that power stoves, broilers,… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

17" Kathe Kruse Doll 1 In Original Dutch Costume Antique Doll Circa 1912-$1nr!Kathe Kruse Schlenkerchen, Rare 1922 Cloth Doll To RestoreAntique Circa 1920's France La Nicette Felt Poupée Doll Original Tag & Box 8" (3) Vintage Cloth Rag Dolls 1930's/40's Volland Raggedy AnnMartha Chase - Boy Doll - 19" - Blonde Hair & Brown Eyes - Cutest Clothes!!!!!!Vintage Style 1930's Alma Margot Lenci Felt Painted Features 12" Doll Cloth BodyZwergnase "trintje" 2000 Collection 22" Vinyl & Cloth Doll With Human Hair Iob15” Vintage Cloth Girl Scout Doll, Georgene AverillAntique Original German 5" Bisque Child Doll With Cloth Body ~ EstateDarling Vintage Japanese 12" Bunka Ningyo Cloth Doll Straw Stuffed Big Eyes!20" Aa Grandmas Girl Black Baby Doll Reva Schick Vinyl Cloth 2004 MiddletonVtg Effanbee Baby Dainty Composition Doll Cloth 14" F&b Sleep EyesVintage Baps Storybook Doll "baa ~ Baa Black Sheep' Germany Felt Wire Cloth Composite & Cloth Effanbee 22" Baby Doll Eyes Move Side-side Original Tag LashesLot Of Cloth For American Girl Dolls - Many Dresses/tops/bottoms/shoes/boots/etcAntique 1800's Two Headed White & Black Reversible Doll Composition & ClothSelling For Parts Or Restore 21" Cloth & Compo Unmarked DollAntique 1924 Eih Horsman 20 Inch Tall Composition & Cloth Stuffed Body Baby DollAntique Black Americana Folk Art Aunt Jemima Mammy Haitian Toy Cloth Doll Nr YqzLenci Art Doll Pan Boxed Felt Cloth Vintage Fetish Rare Mitts Italy 1930 MintVintage Baps Storybook Dolls "mary Had A Little Lamb" Germany Felt Wire Cloth Antique French-swiss Boudoir Doll Rare Unusual Cloth Face Bisque Sawdust SilkVintage Baps Storybook Dolls "lack & Jill" Germany Felt Wire Cloth Antique Doll Composition Head Arms & Legs Cloth Body English? French? German?Knickerbocker Beloved Belindy Raggedy Ann Mammy Doll Vintage Cloth Forward FeetVintage German Erna Meyer Cloth Stockinet Girl Doll Germany Stockinette 4 1/2"Vintage 11 1/2" Klumpe Wool Felt Cloth Doll Nurse7” Antique Cloth Girl Scout Doll By Bernard Ravca, FranceSweet Vintage Composition & Cloth Doll~18"~tin Eyes~tlc~1950 Vintage Dollhouse Doll Pressed Cloth German Erna Meyer German Miniature ToyAntique Bisque & Cloth Doll-germany-18 Inch-cloth Body-moving Eyes-nr!Vintage 1973 Mattel #8696 Mrs Beasley Family Affair Rag Doll Mint In Box Mib Custom Cotton Pierrot Shoes For Small Antique Cloth Boudoir Or Other DollVintage 1950s Turquoise Oil Cloth Doll Shoes Buckle & Bow Size 10 Nice!26 Inch Vintage European Boudoir Doll Composition/acetate Body, Pretty FaceBoudoir Doll Ooak "chloe" 25" Cloth Fantasy Lavendar Lady Art Doll By Gayle WrayAntique Kid Leather Doll Body Bisque Hands Cloth FeetLenci/anili 14" Kate In Green Mib Cloth Felt Doll W/ Flowers, Basket & BoxArmand Marseille German Infant Doll-10" Bisque & Cloth, Comp. Hands, Blue EyesPleasant Company American Girl Kirsten Rag Doll ~ SariVintage Deco Compostion Head-arms Black Doll With Original Cloth BodyRare 1930 Mickey Mouse Mickey Mouse 16" Deans Rag Book Velvet DollAntique Black Cloth Rag DollLee Middleton Original Doll=21" Boy=3/4 Vinyl Limbs//cloth Body=sleepingVintage Roldan Cloth Wool Felt 8 3/4" Doll Doctor Whacking Baby- Made In SpainAntique Vtg China Head Doll With Leather Hands & Feet, Cloth Body 16"Printed Cloth Cat French / German Bisque Antique Or Vintage Doll Bleuette Reborn 23" Doll Kit Parts Wide Blue Eyed Cloth Body With Limbs 15" Head~ Wonderful! Vintage Presbyterian Oil Cloth Face Doll All Original ~Vintage Baps Storybook Doll Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater Germany Felt Wire Cloth Antique "mama" Composition And Cloth Sleepy Eye Doll / 24"22" Antique Composition And Cloth Mama Doll With Mohair Wig And Tin Eyes Vintage11" Klumpe Wool Felt Cloth Character Girl Doll With Fuzzy Gray Goose Amazing Handmade Lenci-like Cloth Italian Girl Doll With Original ClothingHome Decor Composition Doll Antique Composition Mid Century Retro 19" Cloth ToyVintage Pink Oil Cloth Shoes For Composition Or Hard Plastic DollsAntique German Paper Mache Shoulderhead 20 " Doll Cloth Body Glass EyesAntique 1920's Composition Cloth Hand Painted~ruffled Pants Hat~boudoir Doll 30"Vintage 1977 Knickerbocker Annie And Her Dog Sandy Cloth Rag Doll 16 Inch DollVintage Baby Doll With Hard Plastic Head,compositiion Limbs And Cloth Body