Flashback: Random Thoughts on Dolls

April 2nd, 2009

This article argues that collectors should have fun and arrange their dolls for display rather than keeping them behind glass cases, offering ideas for interesting displays. It originally appeared in the January 1945 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

This is a most unorthodox treatise on dolls as we are neither collectors nor authorities on their histories, but for the past three years we have been literally up to our ears in dolls at Christmas time. It all started when we borrowed three old dolls and a little old broken down doll carriage from Miss Miller of the Museum of the City of New York for our Christmas window display.

Calling on Christmas Morning: The setting is simple. The baskets are filled with small packages and bits of greens. Dolls from the collection of Miss Grace Schulte.

Calling on Christmas Morning: The setting is simple. The baskets are filled with small packages and bits of greens. Dolls from the collection of Miss Grace Schulte.

You can’t just put three old dolls and a doll carriage in a department store window and caption your display “Three Old Dolls and A Doll Carriage —circa 1750″ and then expect the windows to be thronged with interested onlookers — you have to do things with them and bring your display to life.

You build a little scene and have the dolls tell a story. You show them doing their Christmas shopping with the carriage piled with packages and before very long the telephone in your office rings and a little old lady from Ashtabula tells you that the window is “simply darling and could you possibly use a doll that belonged to great grandmother whose grandfather who was a sea captain brought to her when she was a little girl” — and so on and on. By the time the conversation is finished you and the old lady are fast friends and somehow you know that next Christmas you are going to have not three, but sixty three old dolls and an assortment of doll furniture in your windows.

Sewing for Santa Claus: Scraps of old fabrics inspired this setting. The hat and small jewel boxes are covered with old wall paper fragments. Doll from the collection of Miss Grace Schulte.

Sewing for Santa Claus: Scraps of old fabrics inspired this setting. The hat and small jewel boxes are covered with old wall paper fragments. Doll from the collection of Miss Grace Schulte.

It may be presumptuous for us to say so (being outsiders) but we feel that many collectors miss much pleasure for themselves and their friends by putting their treasures under glass, so to speak. Dolls were made to play with so why not play with them. Arrange them in groups and have them do things. Backgrounds such as we use in the windows are not really necessary in one’s home. Any article of doll’s furniture and a few small accessories will do.

The furniture and accessories need not necessarily be in scale with the dolls but attention to detail does help. Much of the charm of the McCreery windows comes from little things like pictures, mirrors, and table appointments — they make the little scenes live and give them meaning.

Naming the dolls adds interest too. Many an old couple have gone off in gales of laughter over Jerusha tucking the babies in bed and last year someone wrote in asking for a picture of the bathtub scene where Beulah was giving Peter a proper scrubbing. It developed that the woman’s name was Beulah and her husband’s was Peter.

At this point Mr. Wells will take over and really tell you something:

Sewing for Santa Claus: Scraps of old fabrics inspired this setting. The hat and small jewel boxes are covered with old wall paper fragments. Doll from the collection of Miss Grace Schulte.

Just Before the Christmas Party: Here Beulah is giving Peter a proper scrubbing. The pictures on the walls are all copied from illustrations from old books and the dolls from the collection of Miss Grace Schulte.

Nearly all of our windows have been worked out with dolls from twelve to twenty-six inches high — dolls who were never fortunate enough to have lived in a doll house but of a size that forms the basis of many a doll collection. So far we have made twenty-eight groupings and some of the things we have learned may be of interest to collectors who would like to make their collections more effective. We have no doubt about the reward they will reap.

Many groupings can be successful with no background at all. Let four of the dolls have tea in a corner of your doll room or when you have tucked the baby doll in that old four poster bring your lovely Greiner over to sit by him. Tuck a little toy in with the baby and put a little dog on the foot of the bed. Mother Greiner can hold a tiny old book in her hands — a bit of thread or fine wire will hold her hands together enough to hold a book.

By this time you are well started on your setting, so keep your eyes open for a bit of old fabric that will do for a rug and there you arc. Of course by this time, you are probably up in the attic searching for some old fringe to edge the circular skirted tablecover and your friends will be looking for little tidbits for the table.

Let Agatha who has been sitting in the doll coach ever since you picked her up at the auction invite a few friends to accompany her on an Easter shopping trip. When they are all ensconced in the coach complete with packages and a bunch of flowers, get out that little old parasol — open it and put in her hand. Suddenly you will remember the small Staffordshire poodle on the guest room mantel and you will pop him in the coach. Then get the camera and you will have next year’s Easter card.

Packing for the Christmas Journey: This setting shows Betsy and Mathilda Greiner just before they have completed their packing. The chest of drawers is a miniature of this period, the rug a restored piece of needlepoint and the dolls from the collection of Miss Sidney Howell.

Packing for the Christmas Journey: This setting shows Betsy and Mathilda Greiner just before they have completed their packing. The chest of drawers is a miniature of this period, the rug a restored piece of needlepoint and the dolls from the collection of Miss Sidney Howell.

Of course it’s fun to work with simple backgrounds too, and if we were setting up a room to house a doll collection we would have a shelf at table height about thirty inches wide and forty inches over it another shelf for storage. This would give an ideal space for groups with a ceiling forty inches high, which is the ceiling in all the settings in the accompanying photographs. With such a shelf you can pin up or put on cardboard, pieces of old fabric or wall paper. Pin up draperies or attach them to small cornices and have exhibitions whenever you choose. Some means of lighting this space should be worked out which is an excellent way to get the man of the house to work. He can be very helpful once he is intrigued with the idea — and we should warn him that it is very easy to be intrigued.

As we said before, don’t worry too much about scale. Most dolls are not in scale to begin with and this makes them very open-minded. Some things you come across will be too small and some a bit too large but that seems to keep it all in a doll spirit which is a completely different spirit from Mrs. Thorne’s wonderful miniature rooms. You will be surprised to find how many things that were never intended for dolls are small enough to use successfully in doll groupings. Children’s toys will be very useful and Grandfather’s smallest pewter measure makes a wonderful vase for tiny sprays of cedar and bayberry.

The Christmas Cotillion: Victorian in feeling, the dolls are of the period and are from the collection of Miss Sidney Howell, arranged in an appropriate setting that reproduces the period.

The Christmas Cotillion: Victorian in feeling, the dolls are of the period and are from the collection of Miss Sidney Howell, arranged in an appropriate setting that reproduces the period.

If you are a doll collector you are probably also a saver of tidbits and trifles of all kinds and soon you will find just the right spot in your setting for everything in the old trunk — those enchanting old awards of merit you have been treasuring in your desk will make lovely pictures for the walls. Whatever you have the most of use that as a key for your groupings — we were given scraps of old fabrics and trimmings so we set up the sewing room shown here. A few bags of small toys were the inspiration for a wonderful Christmas toyshop which before it was finished included miniature grandfather’s clocks, seashells and little medicine bottles filled with tiny cake decorations for the candy shelf.

Sometimes the dolls themselves will suggest a scene. Three or four with their cloaks and bonnets on can soon have baskets filled with gifts and be off on a journey of Christmas mercy of which any good grandmother would thoroughly approve. If you have some pretty doll’s petticoats and such, set up a little clothes line — pin up the skirts of two good Monday dolls — find a clothes basket for them and set them to work.

We have only one secret and that is, make a start. Even display people won’t sit around with heads full of ideas or a perfect picture of how it will all look when finished. We just start with a little idea and let it grow.

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

2 comments so far

  1. Carol Romine Says:

    I LOVE DOLLS! Great Article!

  2. Eva Clark Says:

    Loved the article I stumbled unto it while searching for historical information on the production of black and ethnic porcelean dolls during the 18th or earlier centuries. Can you point me in the right direction?


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