For more than four centuries, Germany was a global center for dolls, fostering everything from technical advancements such as the mechanical voice-box to purely imaginative improvements such as the concept of the “baby-doll.” Most of Germany’s dolls were made in the region of Thuringia, where more than 500 different doll-making companies were headquartered. The close proximity of so many producers created a fertile environment for innovation, leading to innovations that we take for granted today, including the toothed, open-mouth design credited to Kämmer & Reinhardt and the range of bisque skin tones produced by Simon & Halbig.

During the 17th century, Germany’s earliest dolls or “Docken” were typically cut from a single piece of wood using a foot-powered lathe. These dolls had large, rounded heads and bodies roughly shaped like cones or playing pieces from the tabletop game Skittles. Most had no movable parts and portrayed adult characters rather than children. Eventually, small wood attachments were glued to the solid bodies of these primitive dolls to simulate arms, legs, or even facial features.

Wood dolls with flexible limbs attached by peg joints were introduced in the late 18th century, and are often called “Dutch Peg Woodens.” Intricate features were created by sculpting a flour-based substance called “Brotteig,” literally meaning “bread dough,” onto their wooden forms. These dolls were then finished with a bright, durable coating of bismuth paint.

Porcelain was adapted to doll production in Germany during the early 1700s. The country’s natural resources allowed many German companies like Armand Marseille, Dressel & Kister, Simon & Halbig, Hertwig, and Limbach to develop a variety of glazed porcelain or bisque dolls. The Gebrüder Heubach factory created particularly emotive bisque doll heads, most of which were sold to other companies for finishing. The detailed expressions on these dolls ranged from shy embarrassment to complete fear, as seen on a frightened Heubach doll with a large black fly perched on her nose. Heubach also made popular mechanical variations like “Whistling Jim,” a doll whose chest was fitted with a bellows system to create a realistic whistle when pushed, as well as character figurines called “Piano dolls” meant for display rather than play.

In the early 1800s, German factories embraced a newer papier-mâché or composition technique, whereby a soft mixture of paper pulp and glue was mold-pressed to produce specific parts. Once dry, the individual pieces were sanded, painted, and varnished to make them more durable. Though the composition method helped to standardize production, early papier-mâché dolls were often consumed by mice attracted to the flour contained in their glue mixture.

Baby dolls, called “Täuflinge,” were first produced in Germany during the 1850s, initially in a popular waxed papier-mâché style. The popularity of baby-dolls endures to this day, though the waxed composition method was soon dropped because of the rapid deterioration of the material.

By the second half of the 19th century, American retailers like FAO Schwarz and Macy’s were selling Armand Marseille’s porcelain dolls, which were designed in every price categor...

One of Germany’s most renowned doll designers was Käthe Kruse, who began making detailed cloth dolls for her seven children in 1905. Kruse sold her first group of 150 dolls to New York’s FAO Schwarz toy store, and in 1913, her dolls won the Grand Prix at the Gent World Exhibition. Kruse’s most successful design, called “Doll VIII – The Faithful Child” was modeled after her son, and was the first of her dolls made with a human-hair wig.

Another successful female entrepreneur from Germany was Margarete Steiff, who established her doll business in 1877 with simplistic cloth character and animal figures. Her soft stuffed dolls were typically made from felt, plush, or velvet with embroidery or buttons used to create distinctive features. Although most famous for her animals, Steiff also designed charismatic human caricatures, like the dapper “Grosspapa” or Grandfather. Steiff dolls are easily recognizable by the company’s signature button sewed into each doll’s ear.

World War I brought an end to Germany’s dominance of the doll world, and its wrecked economy stifled recovery in the years following. Despite this setback and the one that followed World War II, German companies continued to release innovative doll designs, such as the Bild Lilli character. Lilli dolls, first produced in 1955, were based on a newspaper cartoon series featuring a shapely, fashionable, and no-nonsense young woman. It was one of these novelty dolls, often sold in smoke shops rather than children’s stores, that Ruth Hansen brought back to the U.S. in 1956, helping to form her prototype for the Barbie series, which debuted in 1959. Hansen’s Mattel acquired the rights to Bild Lilli in 1964.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

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]

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]

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]

Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rare Darling Antique German Gebruder Heubach 9573 Googly Eyed Doll 9" Rare Antique German Bisque Character Winker Googly Doll By Gebruder HeubachBeautiful French Or German Antique Lady Fashion Doll Kestner Simon Halbig?1800's Biedermeier Wigged German China Head Doll Antique Excellent ConditionAdorable Antique Alt Beck & Gottschalck All Bisque German Doll Miniature Antique German Dollhouse Dolls P 265 A Jointed Bisque Art Deco 1920sAntique 14inch Kestner Character-face Boy Doll 152-5, German Bisque Head DollAntique 22" Kestner Bisque Composition Doll German Original Clothes Wig Silk & Lace Antique Dress For Your German French Doll Jumeau Kestner Bru ClothesGerman DollAntique German Bisque Doll Head Handwerck 99 Sleep EyesAntique German Pull Toy For Bisque Doll Felt Covered Bear On Wheels Glass Eyes15inch Antique Armand Marseille 390 N. A3/0m German Bisque Head DollLtd Toy Stamp & 1906 Simon Halbig 28" German Bisque Head Doll W Composition BodySilk & Lace Antique Dress For Your German French Doll Jumeau Kestner Bru Clothes15inch Antique 990 A5m Armand Marseille German Bisque Head Doll ... NrLtd Toy Stamp & 1900s Kestner 33" German Bisque Head Doll W Composition BodyLtd Toy Stamp & 1900s Heinrich Handwerck 27" German Bisque Head Doll W Comp Body14" German Bisque Doll With Composition BodyLtd Toy Stamp & 1900 Alt Beck Gottschalch 32" German Bisque Head Doll W Comp BodSmall 9" Antique German Bisque Head Doll 3-0 Solid-dome Head, No Reserve!Ltd Toy Stamp & 1900s Armand Marseille 24" German Bisque Head Doll W Comp BodyAntique 18" Simon & Halbig~jointed Body For Repair Black Bisque Head Doll-germanAntique Bisque Shoulderhead 17" Doll~german?~incised L.h.p. 0 1/2~kid Body~lookLtd Toy Stamp & 1900s Borgfeldt 24" Pansy Iv German Bisque Head Doll W Comp BodyAntique Doll - Just Me Registered Germany A310/11/0m Antique German Bisque Head Kid Body DollAntique German Simon Halbig 22 1/2" Doll Bisque Head Composition BodyAntique Original Blue Dress For French Or German Doll 16-17", C.1900Antique Bisque German Doll 813 X Tr Leather Body -was A Christmas Gift In 1888 Antique Handwerck German Doll, Bisque 119-13, 28inches Tall No Reserve21" Gebruder Heubach 8192 Glass Eyed Character German Antique Bisque Girl DollAntique 19" Bisque Head Doll W/ Compo Ball Jointed Body Germany Tlc ProjectRare! German Antiq. Googly Eyed Felt Doll W/compo. Mask Face:hug Me Kiddies? Vintage German Composition Doll Body & Small Porcelain Simon & Halbig Head 1079Vintage Antique Doll Dress For 16"-18" German French Bisque Head Or ChinaLot Antique Bisque Dolls Nippon / GermanBeautiful Hat For Antique French Or German Doll 19-21inch.Rare Antique German Simon Halbig Santa Bisque Doll 35"Kestner Antique Doll #164-marked "made In; L - 15; Germany-29"-exc ConditionAntique German Bisque Head Doll Needs Repair22" Early Brown Eyes Eyed German China Head DollVintage Baps German Red Riding Hood & Wolf Fairy Tale Dolls Dollhouse Posable NrGermany Antique Doll Bisque Head Composition Body Signed Germany 182 Unknown15inch Antique Armand Marseille 390n Drgm 24 A1 German Bisque Head Doll NrAntique Armand Marseille No. 390 German Doll With Porcelain Head - As-isAntique (1890's) German Kestner 16 1/2 Bisque Doll - Glass Eyes - Comp BodyAntique Bisque German Doll Head Limbach Willy 3 1772Antique Handwerk German Doll, Bisque 119-13, 28inches Tall No ReserveAntique 24" German Simon Halbig Doll With Leather Body, Antique ClothingAntique 30" German China Head Doll Wearing Antique ClothingGermany Bisque 6" Doll Pair Hinged Arms Both Different 514921Beautiful Lot Of 8 Antique German Porcelain Half DollsVintage Baps Hansel & Gretel & Witch Posable German Fairy Tale Dolls DollhouseMagnificent Antique Doll Head Pin Cushion German Bisque Vintage RareAntique 18inch Armand Marseille 390 A 3 1/2 M German Bisque Head DollKestner Jdk #226 German Bisque Head Doll Sleepy Eyes Open Mouth, Intact Body 15"Antique Kestner 20" C 1/2 Made In Germany Bisque Doll Kidskin Leather BodyAntique German Composition Doll Body And Assorted Parts ~ 16" LongAntique Old Petticoat Dress Slip & Pantaloons For German Bisque Or French Doll