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.