The mass-produced-doll industry exploded in the years after World War II, thanks to innovations in plastics. Celluloid dolls had been around since 1860, and were manufactured in the early 20th century, but they weren't very durable. Their colors would fade, their features might disintegrate, and even more troubling, they were highly flammable.
Plastics developed during wartime allowed toy companies to make millions of dolls using the same basic molds, which could be altered ever-so-slightly for a new doll line. In the 1940s, well-established doll companies—originally known for their composition, bisque, or china dolls—began making their beloved products in hard plastics. Many of these hard plastic dolls were not finished well, with visible seams from the casting process.
But it was experiments with a range of polyethylene compounds, generically called "vinyl," that took the doll world by storm. These new plastics were seen as safer and more sturdy than the plastics of dolls past. On the downside, the features of a vinyl doll's face, hands, and feet tended to be less well-defined than composition or hard plastic dolls. But on the upside, they could be produced quickly and in tremendous numbers.
Plus, vinyl proved incredibly flexible: it could be a "soft" material (used for heads and limbs), or "hard" (used for the body). It also allowed for a major innovation in doll hair, which could be "rooted" into the head. Previously, dolls had worn wigs, or simply had their hair molded into or painted onto their heads.
The long-established E.I. Horsman Doll Company was a pioneer in this field in the early 1950s, as it sought out an alternative material to composition, which was difficult to work with. Its first innovation was the light, unbreakable, and easy-to-mold "vinyl-plastic," which could be sculpted into lifelike features.
Then, Horsman developed an even more flexible material it dubbed Super-Flex, which allowed a doll to be posed, in many different ways, as their knees and elbows could bend. The company's other new vinyls, Fairy Skin and Softee Skin, gave its dolls an even more realistic feel. In 1953, Horsman released its popular Campbell's Kids, based on the soup advertising characters, in its soft-vinyl Fairy Skin.
As top doll companies like Pedigree Doll Company of England, Alexander Doll Company of New York (makers of Madame Alexander dolls), and Ideal Toy Company turned toward hard plastics and vinyl, certain features became standard in the mid-century, such as eyes that could open and close, as well as joints at the shoulders, wrists, and hips. Some vinyl dolls also had necks or waists that could swivel...
Three main trends emerged in the 1950s: Baby dolls were more popular than ever; character dolls now took inspiration from TV; and the market for fashion dolls exploded. As it was with the composition and rubber baby dolls of the '30s, the most popular baby dolls had some special ability, whether that was crying, eating, wetting, or cooing. Toddler dolls might also walk or talk. Often, these baby dolls were offered in African American as well as Caucasian versions.
Madame Alexander’s early 1950s Diaper Baby Doll sipped from a bottle, and had a diaper that could be changed. The two largest versions of Horsman’s 1951 lifelike Tynie Baby, made with a soft-vinyl head and cloth body, came with a crying voice box. Tiny Tears baby doll, developed by the U.K.’s Palitoy and marketed in the U.S. by American Character Doll Company, both cried and wet its diaper.
The new rooted-hair technology allowed little girls to cut, wash, and style their dolls’ hair, and doll companies produced dolls with this in mind. Madame Alexander’s Madeline doll, launched in 1952, was sold with a comb and curlers for styling her shoulder-length hair. Ideal’s hard-plastic Toni doll, made in collaboration with Gilette, had “magic Nylon hair” that could be washed and set with her own Play-Wave kit. Horsman’s Shadow Wave doll, with a hard plastic body and Fairy Skin vinyl head, was sold with hair-setting lotion, brush, comb, sponge, barrette, and curlers.
During the '50s, films starring Shirley Temple, the most popular child actor of the 1930s, began to appear on television, endearing the curly-haired moppet to a new generation of children. That’s why Ideal revived its Shirley Temple doll line. Originally made of composition, the new Shirley Temple dolls were vinyl. Other popular character dolls included Scarlett O’Hara of “Gone With the Wind,” British royalty, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan, and puppeteer Shari Lewis. The Betsy McCall doll from McCall’s Magazine and Pattern Company even came with a pattern to make her an apron.
The now-ubiquitous vinyl fashion doll named Barbie didn’t set her stilettoed foot into the doll landscape until 1959. Before her celebrated debut, Ideal introduced its 22-inch Revlon doll in the late '50s as “a teen-age sister with a real girl’s figure.” Shortly after, Ideal followed up a 10-inch Little Miss Revlon, and a variety of boxed outfits could be purchased for her. The Deluxe Reading Company produced its vinyl Candy Fashion Doll in 1957.
But these well-dressed young ladies were blown out of the water two years later when Mattel offered its glamorous 11 ½-inch Barbie doll, blond or brunet, in a black-and-white knit bathing suit for the low price of $1. That year, Mattel also offered 21 changes of clothes for Barbie, including the “Roman Holiday” travel ensemble. For more than half a century, Barbie has been a household name, and enough Barbies, friends, clothes, houses, cars, and other accessories have been produced to populate a small country. Other '60s fashion dolls tried to compete with Barbie—including Tammy, Jody, and Crissy—to no avail. Only Pedigree’s Sindy came close.
In the early '60s, Mattel also put out the decidedly less sexy but still popular Charmin’ Chatty doll, a 20-inch pull-string talking doll, which was eventually renamed Chatty Cathy. Another talking doll of the era, Talking Mari, had a battery-operated mini record player inside. When it came to gimmicky dolls in the '60s, American Character Doll company had two flops with teenage fashion doll Tressy, who featured a key on her back that made her hair appear to grow, and Mary Magic Make-Up, with a face that could be painted.
Baby dolls with gimmicks did better: These include crying Tammy Tears; peeing Betsy Wetsy, who appeared to kiss when her stomach was squeezed; Horsman’s Baby Buttercup, which came with a cooing voice box; and Baby Dribbles, which fed on a bottle and also seemed to have a runny nose. Walk-A-Bye, Goody Two Shoes, and Princess Peggy could take a stroll.
Other peculiar '60s trends included the lifesize dolls and the tiny and strange-looking Trolls. Dolls in Ideal’s Playpal series were the size of an average three-year-old child, 36-inches tall, and able to wear real children’s clothing. These vinyl dolls could also be posed in realistic positions. Vinyl Troll dolls, on the other hand, came in sizes ranging from 2 ½ to 10 inches tall, and sprang entirely out of imagination, with their odd, wrinkled faces and neon-colored hair.
Several dolls were produced in the 1960s to honor America’s elegant first family, the Kennedys. Vinyl fashion dolls were made in the glamorous, well-heeled likeness of Jacqueline Kennedy, while the 1961 Caroline toddler doll bore a striking resemblance to the president’s daughter. Dolls were also made to resemble TV characters such as Pebbles and Bam-Bam from “The Flintstones,” and Samantha from “Bewitched.”
On the sophisticated side of the spectrum, in 1966, the Friedland Doggart group in England issued a vinyl doll inspired by the designs of esteemed Swiss doll artist Sasha Morgenthaler. This 20-inch Sasha doll, came with a wig of natural hair and had a neutral expression that Morgenthaler believed the child would adapt to her own mood. Even though the U.S.’s Arranbee Doll Company was acquired by Vogue Doll Company in 1959, well-made vinyl Arranbee-marked dolls were still produced through the early 1960s, including the realistic Baby Marie and Littlest Angel dolls.
With the introduction of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe and other soldier dolls for boys in the 1960s, the concept of action figures was born. Vinyl was a natural material for action figures, which blew up in the '70s as Mego produced lines of daredevils, World War II heroes, knights, dinosaurs, robots, characters from popular TV shows, and comic-book superheroes like Superman and Bat-Man. But Kenner Toy Company crushed Mego in the late '70s, when it agreed to produce the vinyl action figures for a little space opera known as “Star Wars.”
Before that 1977 monster hit, Kenner had introduced the 12-inch vinyl Blythe dolls in 1972. These odd girly dolls had little bodies and large heads with huge eyes that would change position and color through a pull string. Thanks to the U.S. Bicentennial celebration of 1976, historical dolls were also popular, particularly the Holly Hobbie dolls, created by American Greeting Cards and produced by Knickerbocker Toys. These vinyl and vinyl-and-plastic dolls were characterized by their big sun bonnets and gingham dresses.
In the '70s, Ideal also produced the first American “sexed” doll with anatomically correct vinyl genitalia; named Joey Stivic, it was modeled after the grandson of Archie Bunker in “All in the Family.” Mattel and other companies followed with their own controversial sexed dolls.
Vinyl dolls of all types were continually manufactured and sold from the '70s till now. The most well-known are the Cabbage Patch Kids. First produced with vinyl heads and cloth bodies by Coleco in the early '80s, Cabbage Patch dolls were based on the '70s soft-sculpture fabric dolls of Xavier Roberts. The wildly popular original line of Coleco Cabbage Patch dolls were made with 21 varieties of vinyl heads.
The still-popular American Girl dolls, 18-inch vinyl dolls depicting historical characters of different ethnicities and backgrounds, were introduced by the Pleasant Company in 1986, as mail-order only. In the 1990s, the line expanded to include contemporary stories for the dolls, and 1998, the company became a subsidiary of Mattel.
In the '80s, celebrity dolls became even more popular, as World Doll introduced its series featuring Marilyn Monroe; Effanbee put out its Legend Series with W.C. Fields and Mae West; and Franklin Mint began issuing its Heirloom Doll series in the likeness of Rapunzel, Disney’s Snow White, and Scarlett O’Hara.
Today, vinyl is a popular material with doll artisans who make creations for the collectibles market. Esteemed modern dollmakers include Jan McLean, Robert Tonner, and Monika Peter-Leicht. Another trend in doll-making that has emerged since the ‘90s is the concept of “reborn” dolls. Also known as “living” or “unliving” dolls, these vinyl dolls are sculpted with startling realism, intended to look like real living, breathing babies in every way possible.