Hard-plastic dolls were first introduced in the late '40s, when new plastics developed during World War II were adopted by civilian manufacturers. Well-established doll makers like Alexander Doll Company and Ideal Toy Company started producing many of their most popular doll lines in hard plastic instead of the more expensive, more labor-intensive, and less durable materials of dolls past—composition, bisque, or china. They were also quick to forego earlier plastics like rubber and celluloid, which wore out easily. In the case of celluloid, the dolls were also highly flammable.
New plastics let companies churn out dolls with very basic molds faster than ever before. Some of these new hard plastic dolls were well-designed but not very well finished, with visible seams from the mold. Low-grade plastics could also crack, presenting a safety hazard. That said, hard plastic material was favored for more high-end plastic dolls because it could be used to create detailed features, even after the more flexible plastics known as “vinyl” were introduced in the 1950s. Hard plastic and vinyl dolls often had eyes that could open and close, as well as joints on the hips, shoulders, and wrists.
In the '50s, the mohair wigs (made from Angora goat hair) of hard-plastic dolls were replaced with synthetic materials like saran, Dynel, and nylon. The strands would be sewn to a net by a machine, and then the net would be glued to the dolls’ head. Saran hair had a permanently set curly or straight style, but Dynel and nylon hair could be water set. These developments led to a wide variety of dolls with hair girls could style themselves.
Some of the early adopters included Ideal, who made the Baby Coos doll with a hard-plastic head and composition limbs, and Pedigree Doll Company in England, who made their Beauty Skin dolls with rubber bodies and hard-plastic heads. England’s Rosebud Doll company started out with composition dolls when it was founded in 1947, but quickly adapted to hard plastic. (Founder Eric Smith is known for creating a talking-doll device that got the interest of Mattel, which absorbed the company in 1967.)
After the war, British National Doll Company switched from making doll heads of china to hard-plastic dolls. Its baby dolls came with molded hair, open-shut eyes, and bent limbs that were jointed at the hips, shoulders, and wrists.
Buddy Lee, a doll made as a promotional item for Lee Jeans beginning in 1920, was first made out of hard plastic starting in 1949. Earlier versions of the company mascot, which were originally made for advertising displays, had been made of composition. The new 13-inch hard-plastic Buddy Lee was the second highest-selling doll in the U.S. before it was discontinued in 1962.
In the United States, the Alexander Doll Company set the standard for high-end well-made hard-plastic dolls under its Madame Alexander trademark. In 1947, it introduced its 18-inch Wendy Ann doll. With her soft brown wig of real human hair and her wistful expression, Wendy Ann was an immediate hit, and stores could barely keep her in stock...
The company’s glamorous line of 21-inch Cissy fashion dolls were meant for older girls, and were sold along with a wide selection of intricately detailed clothing and accessories such as ball gowns, pumps, gloves, earrings, and hats. These dolls came with a little hat box inscribed “Madame Alexander, NewYork” attached to their wrists with a golden thread. These dolls were so elegant that Yardley of London employed them in their toiletries advertisements.
Alexander also made baby dolls, like the hard-plastic Rosebud doll of the early 1950s, with a voice and moving eye, as well as hard-plastic character dolls such as the Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty dolls sold at Disneyland and Spiegel’s department stores. One of its most popular lines was the Alexander-kins baby doll series. These 8-inch dolls were produced for years, in a wide variety of styles and costumes.
The Vogue Doll Company, which was started by Jennie Graves in 1922, already had a reputation for making some of the finest doll clothing around, debuted its hard-plastic Ginny dolls after the war. The toddler doll, named for her daughter, Virginia Graves Carlson, was altered with addition of sleep eyes in 1951 and a walking model in 1954. The 1954 doll came with an adorable mini plush terrier by Stieff. Vogue, who liked to call itself “the fashion leader in doll society,” also made other named and storybook dolls.
Another company competing with Alexander and Vogue for the high-priced doll market was Fleischaker & Baum, more commonly known by their tradmark Effanbee. This company was renowned for its gorgeous hard-plastic Honey doll, which had nylon hair, open-shut eyes, and open-closed mouth. Honey even had the distinct honor of having clothes made for her by Parisian haute couture house Schiaparelli. Effanbee also made a line of Little Lady dolls, as well as a Prince Charming and Cinderella set as fine as Madame Alexander’s.
Capitalizing the doll hair-styling craze, Ideal Toy Company bragged that its hard-plastic Toni doll came with “magic Nylon hair” that could be washed and set with its accompanying Play-Wave Kit. This popular doll, which was heavily promoted in department-store catalogs, had a tag on its wrist that read, “Be Proud of Your Toni Doll.” The Toni mold was also used to make Ideal’s hard-plastic doll of Mary Hartline, the “Pretty Princess” of '50s television. Another well-loved Ideal doll was Betsy McCall, the advertising character for McCall’s patterns, who had a Bakelite hard-plastic body and a vinyl head stuffed with cotton batting.
Ideal sold the Toni mold to American Character Doll company, which made their Tonis out of vinyl. In hard plastic, the company used the Toni mold in the early '50s to made their Sweet Sue line of early toddler dolls with open-shut eyes. They also used the mold to make a hard-plastic Alice in Wonderland, who naturally came wearing a pinafore. Sweet Sue’s special feature was her versatile saran chignon hairpiece created by esteemed hairstylist Charles of the Ritz. Saran Yarn Company boasted that kids could give Sweet Sue “all the newest hairdos: Pompadour, topknot, whirltop, and halo.”
Even though Horsman was an innovator in developing vinyl dolls, they also made dozens of models of their Bright Star line, originally composition dolls, in hard plastic in the early '50s. Bright Star had glassine sleep eyes and a saran wig. Other important hard-plastic doll makers of the postwar era include Arranbee Doll Company, which created Nanette; Robert Doll Company; Royal Doll Company; Terri Lee Sales Corporation; and Nancy Ann Storybook and Style Show Dolls.