The Terri Lee doll was modeled after a real four-year-old girl from Lincoln, Nebraska. Violet Lee Gradwohl and her niece, artist Maxine Runci, designed the doll after Runci's toddler daughter, Drienne. They named her Terri Lee after the nickname of Gradwohl's daughter. For Gradwohl and Runci, Terri Lee was designed to be a durable companion, a friend who could be carried everywhere, which is exactly what many little girls did with their Terri Lee dolls between 1946 and 1962.
The 16-inch Terri Lee dolls have a plastic or composition head and chubby-toddler bodies. Notable characteristics of a Terri Lee doll include dimples; a closed mouth; big, painted eyes; elaborately detailed clothing; and a fabric daisy on her wrist. Some came with a Girl Scout or Brownie outfit. The doll’s most important contribution to doll design was Gradwohl's patented Celanese yarn doll wig, which could be washed, brushed, and styled.
Eventually, the Terri Lee Company made the doll a brother, Jerri Lee. The model for the male doll was the same as for Terri Lee, and the pair often wore matching outfits. The company also produced a Tiny Terri and Tiny Jerri; African-American dolls named Benji, Patti Jo, and Bonnie Lou; and baby dolls named Linda Lee, Connie Lynn, and So-Sleepy. The Terri Lee Company also made Hispanic and Eskimo dolls, Guadalupe and Nanook. All sold well but the company’s only celebrity doll, Gene Autry, was a bust with children.
Costumes such as bathing suits, furs, and formals were also a part of the product line, as were accessories, which included the Deluxe Wardrobe Set and the Hair Dress Kit. Some of the costumes were even designed to match Steiff stuffed animals. The Terri Lee line was so popular that in 1951, G.H.&E. Freydberg, Inc., made a copy of the doll, which it called Mary Jane.
Between 1961 and 1965, Terri Lee molds were sold to multiple companies, including Magna Enterprises and I & S Industries, which made a talking version of the toy. Stung by competition of its own making, the Terri Lee Company reacquired its doll molds via the courts.
The original dolls made in 1946 and 1947 had composition bodies. Starting in 1948, all Terri Lee dolls were made of plastic. To identify one of these early dolls, look for the words "TERRI LEE" "PAT. PENDING" in raised letters on the doll’s upper back.
In 1997, members of the founders’ family formed Terri Lee Associates and began reproducing some of the company’s most popular dolls, as well as new toys. In 1999, a limited edition, 50th anniversary Terri Lee doll was produced in a run of 5,000.