A paper doll is simply a flat drawing or print of a human or animal figure, designed to be cut out and decorated. The doll’s costumes and clothing are also drawn on a two-dimensional surface and often have cut-out tabs to fold around the doll.
Even though “paper” is in the name, the term may refer to similar 2-D dolls made out of plastic, cloth, or wood. Also, 3-D dolls and costumes may be called paper dolls, if they are entirely made of folded paper. Paper doll collectors are often drawn to any toys that are printed on paper, such as airplanes, cars and trains, animals, towns, houses, and furniture.
Possibly the most disposable of all toys, a surviving paper doll set offers a great window into the fashion and culture of its time. Often, dolls were based on well-loved fictional characters and the prominent celebrities of the day, whether that was royalty or political figures, theater and opera stars, television and movie icons, or popular singers.
Paper figures and puppets, of course, can be traced back to ancient times, but what we think of as paper dolls first appeared during 18th-century Rococo Europe. Handpainted images of aristocratic ladies accompanied with choices for extravagant, frilly silk-and-lace gowns, elaborate headdresses, corsets, and elegant accessories appeared in the fashion centers of the day, Paris, Vienna, London, and Berlin. These were designed for wealthy adults, possibly by a dressmaker to showcase her work.
Manufactured paper dolls didn’t hit the scene until 1810, when S&J Fuller in London printed Little Fanny. American company J. Belcher, of Boston, quickly followed with its "The History and Adventures of Little Henry" in 1812. However, in the early 1800s, the most coveted printed paper dolls in the United States were imported from Europe, which was known for its luxurious fashions. The first known celebrity published as a paper doll was ballerina Marie Taglioni in the 1830s. Her doll was followed by boxed sets inspired by ballerina Fanny Elssler and—of course—Queen Victoria.
Founded in 1828 in the United States, McLoughlin Brothers, also a publisher of children’s books, churned out reams of paper dolls, printing them with engraved wood blocks. Their dolls, which sold for five to 10 cents a set, are still relatively easy to find today, with titles like Dottie Dimple, Lottie Love, and Jenney June. In 1920, board game giant Milton Bradley purchased the company.
Other important Victorian Era paper doll publishers include Peter G. Thompson, which printed characters like Pansy Blossom, Jessie Jingle, Lillie Lane, Bessie Bright, and Nellie ...
London company Raphael Tuck is probably the most esteemed early paper-doll publisher from that era. Founded in 1866, the family firm produced postcards, Christmas cards, and other graphic advertisements. In 1883, Queen Victoria bestowed her Royal Warrant of Appointment on the company, which then labeled its products, “Art Publishers to Her Majesty the Queen.”
The company patented its first paper doll in 1893, a baby with a bottle. Tuck’s big innovation was to produce a set of paper dolls with many outfits to chose from and interchangeable heads. It also put out regular lines with names like Sweet Abigail, Winsome Winnie, Bridal Party, My Lady Betty, Prince Charming, and its well-loved Fairy Tale series. Sadly, a bombing during World War II wiped out the company’s manufacturing facilities with all its records and printing plates.
Most paper dolls are less than 12 inches in height, ranging from 6 to 10 inches tall. Around the turn of the century, paper dolls were published in “penny size,” or about 3 inches tall. These hand-colored “penny size” dolls are particularly hard to find—and therefore valuable—as they were often destroyed in play. Thanks to the widespread use of color lithography, invented in 1837, paper doll manufacturing swelled at the end of the 19th century.
Around 1900, New York company Selchow and Righter introduced the popular large envelope set Teddy Bear. While the original is long out of print, B. Shackman continues to print it, as well as dozens of other high-quality reproductions of antique paper dolls.
The first magazine to publish a paper doll within its covers was U.S. publication Godey’s Lady Book, which included a black-and-white doll and page of clothing for children to color in its November 1859 edition. (A similar concept surfaced in 1918, when Ohio publishing company Saalfield—producer of children’s books, dictionaries, and Bibles—put out Dollies to Cut and Paint which mixed full-color images with black-and-white drawings.)
Newspapers, too, got into the act, with the Boston Herald printing paper dolls starting in the 1890s. The first installation in the series featured two women, blond and brunette, and the following issues offered different clothes for them to wear. Not long after, The Boston Globe and The Boston Post put out their own creative paper doll sets.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century, though, that paper dolls were regularly published in women’s and kids’ magazines. Ladies’ Home Journal introduced Lettie Lane, painted by Sheila Young, in October 1908. The stories featuring Lettie, her friends, her family, and their servants became so well-loved that the series ran regularly until July 1915. The magazine continued to include paper dolls, by artists like Lucy Fitch Perkins and Gertrude Key, until 1948.
Good Housekeeping began publishing paper dolls in 1909, featuring the work of artists like Young; but its most popular recurring character Polly Pratt, didn’t appear in until 1919. Other Good Housekeeping paper dolls that popped up throughout the 20th century include Little Louise, Thomas Lamb's Kiddyland Movies, and "walking" dolls by Elmer and Bertha Hader.
The famous Kewpie dolls (named after creator Rose O’Neill’s term for “cute,” “Kewpish”) were first introduced as story characters in a women’s magazine in 1909, and then appeared as paper dolls in Woman’s Home Companion and Ladies’ Home Journal between 1911 and 1927. Thanks to the enduring popularity of the Kewpies, these are some of the most collectible paper dolls to this day.
The Delineator, a fashion magazine produced by Butterick sewing-pattern company, printed stories and dolls during World War I that were meant to encourage patriotism. Through 1922, paper dolls published in the magazine could be paired with paper toys that could be cut out and played with on paper stages. By 1930, The Delineator was showcasing Carolyn Chester’s innovative 3-D wraparound dolls.
Grace Dayton, working for the advertising department at Campbell Soup Company, created the famous fat-cheeked Campbell Kids characters based on her comic strip, Bobby and Dolly. Her famous paper doll Dolly Dingle first appeared in Pictorial Review in 1913, and soon became a regular feature, all the way through 1933. Her series was paused twice in the 1920s to make way for Peggy Pride and friends and flapper Bonnie and Betty Bobbs (who looks like the blond sister of Betty Boop). She also made Dolly Dimples and Bobby Bounce for St. Nicholas Magazine.
McCall’s magazine had a long tradition of publishing paper dolls, starting in 1904, including Jeremiah Crowley’s animals and paper toys, the Jack and Jill Twins, Mel Cummins’ Teeny Town, Norman Jacobsen’s Nipper series, and Nandor’s Hanti’s cut-and-fold Family series. But its most famous paper doll character, a permanently six-year-old brunette named Betsy McCall, didn’t appear until 1951. This traveling character, created by Kay Morrison, always had the latest styles of the day, which, naturally, could be made into clothing for real girls using McCall’s patterns.
Cut-out paper soldiers, too, were popular toys for boys during World Wars I and II. Celebrities were particularly popular subjects for paper dolls. Early movie stars depicted as paper dolls were the likes Mary Pickford, Billie Burke, Mary Miles Minter, Rudolph Valentino, Tom Mix, Charlie Chaplin, and Rin Tin Tin, found in magazines like Ladies World, The Delineator, and Woman’s Home Companion. A company called Photoplay produced Movy-Dolls in 1919 and 1920, including depictions of silent film stars like Chaplin, Pickford, and Norma Talmadge. Later, child star Shirley Temple became a popular paper doll subject; as many as 18 cut-out titles may feature her name.
The popularity of paper dolls (and in all likelihood the cheap nature of their production) made them obvious tools for marketing. Paper dolls, die-cut or designed as cards to cut out, were used in advertisements for the likes of Lyon’s coffee, Pillsbury flour, Baker’s chocolate, Singer sewing machines, Clark’s threads, McLaughlin coffee, and Hood’s Sarsaparilla in the early 1900s.
What’s now referred to as “The Golden Age of Paper Dolls” started after the Great Wall Street Crash of 1929 and continued well into the 1950s. The popularity of paper dolls surged in the 1930s, as they sold for mere pennies and were often some of the only toys families could afford. In the 1940s, the materials used to make dolls and other toys were rationed thanks to World War II, so paper dolls kept proliferating—albeit on lower-quality paper. By the 1950s, paper-doll printing had become an art form for publishers.
In the 1930s, nickel newspapers printed paper dolls, often based on popular comic-strip characters like the Katzenjammer Kids, Dick Tracy, Brenda Starr, Daisy Mae and Li'l Abner, Fritzy Ritz, and Jane Arden. Publications for children, too, like Golden Magazine, Jack and Jill Magazine, and Children’s Playmate, all had their own paper doll series. Paper-doll collectors who buy copies of these publications are often disappointed to find that the paper doll pages have been pulled out.
In magazines for adults, paper dolls started to become common in advertisements, selling everything from nail polish to undergarments. Before the end of the '50s, Springmaid fabrics, Quadriga cloth, Ford cars, Fels Naphtha and Swan soaps, and Carter’s children’s clothing had all employed paper dolls in their ads. Comic books, too, particularly those directed toward girls, featured paper dolls in the 1940s and 1950s; these include Patsy Walker, Hedy DeVine, Millie the Model, My Girl Pearl, A Date With Judy, Dennis the Menace, and Betty and Veronica of the Archie series.
Queen Holden, who started her commercial painting career at Whitman Publishing, was one of the top artists of the era, making dolls in the likenesses of sweet-faced babies, charming children, and loving families, as well as popular movie stars. Collectors covet her Baby Nancy, Baby Patsy, Judy Garland, Baby Shower, Hair-do Dolls, Carolyn Lee, Snow White, and Dionne Quints, as well as her early 1940s Queens Glamour Dolls, which bear an uncanny resemblance to Barbie. Her work is currently licensed to B. Shackman, who is reprinting every one of her designs they can find.
Whitman was the publisher of Raggedy Ann and Andy storybooks, and also produced the well-loved characters as paper doll sets starting in 1935. After 1960, the paper dolls were published by Bobbs-Merrill.
Saalfield was a wildly popular paper-doll publisher during this time, employing talented artists like Maybell Mercer, Betty Bell, Ann Kovach, Jean Morse, Fern Bisel Peat, and Mary Knight. Some of its notable series include Ethel Hays Simms’ Raggedy Ann and Andy paper dolls, Ruth Newton’s Animals in Costumes, and Rose O’ Neill’s 1936 Scooties and Kewpie book.
Samuel Lowe Publishing Company boasted the work of Merily Sharpe, who had a similar style to Queen Holden; the highly regarded children’s illustrator Pelagie Doane; sisters Doris and Marion, who depicted kids playing together in large groups; and Fern Bisel Peat and Queen Holden as well. Jeanne Voelz painted the company’s celebrity dolls, as well as adorable characters like Cuddles and Rags.
The publisher of everything from children’s books to “Gone With the Wind” (the 1940 edition is a hot collector’s item), Merrill Publishing Company found success with Louise Rumely’s Angel Babies series. One of its artists, Florence Salter, also allowed kids to dress up images of puppies and kittens, the same way Ruth Newton at Saalfield did. Famous illustrators E.A. Voss and Maud Tousy Fangel also made paper dolls for this company.
Wisconsin firm Western Publishing made popular Disney characters like Snow White into paper dolls, as well as comic-strip housewife Blondie, adapted by Ethel Bonney Taylor. For this company, Doris Lane Butler created young lady dolls, while Rachel Taft Dixon designed historical, storybook, and folk-costume dolls.
Interestingly, the introduction of Barbie fashion dolls in 1959 was thought to be end of paper dolls. After all, now girls could dress a plastic grown-woman figurine in a wide variety of modern fashions, thanks to the explosion of Barbie clothes. In fact, Barbie had even her own paper doll series, but ever since Barbie, paper dolls have never seen the heights of popularity they enjoyed in the early to mid-20th century.
Antique paper doll collectors generally seek uncut paper doll sets found in books, boxes, and on sheets. As mentioned above, many popular paper doll books have been reprinted, and identical reprints are often nearly as valuable to some collectors as the originals.