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.