With her stocking knit face, shiny black button eyes, rosebud lips and drawn-on kiss curls, this little doll is sure to divide opinion – is she unutterably cute, or downright sinister?
We think she bears a distinct resemblance to the Cabbage Patch Kids which were so hugely popular in the 1980s, as both playthings for children and ‘collectibles’ for adults.
Dolls have always rather divided opinion – as an often childlike representation of the adult human form, many people find them endearing, while others view them as chilling, perhaps because of their role in witchcraft, where a ‘poppet’ might represent a person to whom the witch wanted to do ill.
Our little doll – this one’s definitely a baby doll, a form which had been introduced around 1850, prior to which most dolls resembled adults – was donated to the Scarborough Collections in the 1960s by a Miss D Lord. It used to belong to her and her sister when they were little girls around 1910, so she’s just over a century old.
She’s a pretty unsophisticated little thing – both she and her outfit of pink cotton cap and ‘combinations’, and little ballet-style slippers look homemade, perhaps by a doting mother or grandmother.
The history of dolls is a long and complex one – these days we tend to view them simply as innocent playthings, but ancient societies, both primitive and advanced, used them as art and as religious and magical artefacts as well – in some societies, they were considered too important as spiritual objects to be given to children.
Early dolls were made from whatever materials were available, including clay, stone, bone and ivory – none too cuddly, then.
During the 19th century, manufacturing techniques advanced dramatically and dolls were no longer the crudely fashioned rag, clay or wooden creatures they once were.
More malleable media such as leather, wax and porcelain (hence the phrase ‘china doll’) were being widely used, and dolls’ bodies were increasingly cleverly articulated. At some point in this period, realistic glass eyes began to be used, at first always brown but then blue, apparently inspired by the blue eyes of Queen Victoria.
Around the 1870s, celluloid – an early form of plastic – began to be used. This had the advantage that it’s cheap, not as breakable as china, and very easily moulded into a realistic representation of a human. Celluloid was a popular material for doll manufacture from the late Victorian period through until the 1940s, with some manufacturers using it until the 1950s. However, its use then began to decline as it’s highly flammable, and will spontaneously combust if it overheats.
By the early 20th century, the cult of celebrity had begun to cast its dubious shadow on the world of children’s toys – one of the most successful dolls ever was a 1930s Shirley Temple doll which sold millions. And collectible dolls were also on the increase – these days everyone from Britney Spears to the Duchess of Cambridge has their own little doppelganger. But the original celebrity collectible, created by American maker Madame Alexander, was created in the 1930s and based on Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.
Interestingly, dolls are almost always female – and when they are male, they’re often cast in a supporting role, such as Barbie’s boyfriend Ken. And when they are stars in their own right – such as the phenomenally successful Action Man, originally launched in the States in the 1964 as GI Joe – they tend to be called toy figures or action figures rather than dolls.
The V&A Museum of Childhood in London’s Bethnal Green holds the biggest collection of dolls in the UK, and estimates that of its around 8,000 items, less than 1,000 are male.