I remember when I first fell in love with a doll. Her name was Barbie, and she became my secret best friend. You see, this little lady almost always looked glamorous – except when my sister, Barbie’s rightful owner, got a hold of her. In the aftermath of my sister’s hands, Barbie and I would weep together as we brushed her hair and redressed her into the diminutive doyenne she was. We dreamt together, she and I, until life turned me into a ‘big’ boy, a teen, and eventually a selfish adult with places to go and people to see. But, Barbie came back into my adult life as a memory of something I knew I would never abandon – my inner child.
You either hate dolls, or you love dolls – there is no gray, here. If you disagree, you’re misinformed, lying or in denial. People can say they ‘like’ dolls, but what does this mean, really? It probably means they hate dolls, and find more pleasure in criticizing them rather than celebrating their beauty. On the other hand, it may also mean that they love dolls, but some factor in his/her life prevents one from truly expressing an all-out fanatical devotion to glamorous or child-like whimsy in miniature. In a world now shaded gray by ‘liking’ just about everything of which social media exposes, few seldom take the time to explore just exactly what it means to love something.
I love dolls. There…I said it. I love child dolls, fashion dolls, art dolls, ugly dolls, scary dolls, dolls that aren’t called dolls (action figures), you name it. Hell, I love toys in general, but dolls? A simple spark rises inside me that brings a glow to my heart and a smile to my face whenever I encounter a doll. When I share my love of dolls with other people who also love dolls, a synergy forms all around us. It radiates beyond our conversation to others nearby, infecting them with a positive manifestation of belonging – they want to know what it is we know, and how they might enjoy the same high – for it is a high in no uncertain terms. Any energy expended by the brain toward activities bringing about pleasure will induce a euphoric state. We giggle, laugh, role play, imagine, create, and dare to dream of the new dolls yet to be created by the artists and manufacturers that work day and night to keep their businesses afloat in order to appease we, the people…the doll people.
How, you may ask, does one equate dolls to such nirvana? To answer this question, I feel it’s necessary to explain a few things about dolls and what the medium as an art (and as a business) represents. Dolls might creep you out…if so, that is quite unfortunate, ergo you probably haven’t even made it this far in my story. But what exactly is a doll to you? When most people think of a doll…the first image that arrives in mind is Barbie. Understandably so when you consider Mattel’s mammoth multi-billion dollar marketing assault since the doll’s introduction in 1959. Originally conceived as a girl’s toy, Barbie has become oh-so-much-more in the 50+ years since the fashion teen’s introduction…but I get ahead of myself…
In the generations after Victorian times and leading up to the 1950s, dolls were almost exclusively playthings for little girls – the more money a child’s parents had, the more elaborate the doll. These little friends were made of china, wood, cloth…and eventually rubber and plastic as these new materials emerged. Designs varied from ultra-simple to fabulously ornate, and they represented mostly adult or infant incarnations until the late 1800s where toddler child dolls grew in popularity.
One might suggest the Victorians had an issue with children playing with fully grown ladies and their accouterments. In fact, these ‘fashion ladies’ often were of odd proportions… mirroring a child more than an adult. This was an important distinction, because certain features such as a bosom or high heels were largely not depicted on dolls; again, possibly Victorian ideals censoring the immorality of the female body. Whatever the case may be, dolls rarely looked human, and doll makers seemed to downplay the natural characteristics of the human form.
For the European parent, dolls would represent a very important plaything for their children. They would invest in a quality doll made by French or German doll makers to last a childhood. Just one, mind you…that’s it…no, no…just one. Children were taught to care for their toys then, because there would be no more in the case of loss or destruction, and often these same dolls were passed on to subsequent generations. It kinda-sorta started that way in America, too…but quickly became déclassé in the rise of an industrial nation intent on being a world power. Hand-crafted dolls in breakable materials were sooooooo old world – parents wanted children to play with toys that were inexpensive, modern and American.
In the early 20th century, the rise of the American doll in manufacture peppered children’s hands with dolls largely driven by advertising and licensing, portraying child celebrities Shirley Temple, Margaret O’Brien, babies that wet (yes, that seemed to be OK for parents), and popular cartoon characters. A doll not only sold itself, but it was also designed to sell something else (for example: a movie, a book, or a product). Companies varied their product lines, but the dolls surprisingly looked the same, thanks to Bernard Lipfert, a sculptor who created some of the 20th century’s most popular toy dolls for various companies. At this point, it’s important to note the term, ‘sculpt’ – not many people recognize a doll as starting from a clay, plaster or wood sculpture, but that’s exactly how they are born. In other words, dolls begin from art, itself.
The clothing worn by dolls could also be considered art, but up until the 1950s, attire considered couture might only exist in a representation of a glamorous lady character, or the Princess Elizabeth, herself. In fact, adult fashions rarely appeared on early 20th century children’s dolls. Why not, you might ask? Well, the reasoning was very simple – Victorian ideals evolved over time, and a norm had been set for little girls – a conditioning, so to speak. It was much better for a child to play with a baby doll and dream of becoming the perfect little mommy rather than swishing her skirts like Scarlett O’Hara, declaring, “If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill…” With the emergence of wild abandon and declining morals brought on by the 1920s, the last thing a parent would present to a child would be a ‘Flapper’ doll with her arms and legs exposed…Heaven forbid!
So America settled with more sugar and less spice; children and babies, pink and white – symbols of purity that helped shape the mindset of generations of women…welllllll, not everyone, as the case may be with one doll-making revolutionary. Enter Beatrice (Alexander) Behrman, an American doll maker who created classically designed and ground-breaking toy dolls of exceptional beauty under the business persona of Madame Alexander. Already making childlike dolls for decades, It was Madame Alexander that, in 1955, launched the first manufactured ‘fashion doll’ – that is, a doll with a bustline and high heels. A fan of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’, Behrman wanted to miniaturize this glamorous look for little girls to emulate. Initially padding doll clothes to appear adult-like, Madame Alexander eventually created a doll with a molded bustline and high heel feet. She was sweetly named, ‘Cissy’. To make parents more at ease with the ‘new look’ in dolls, the company retained an earlier child-like head sculpted by Bernard Lipfert. And thus, the first modern American fashion doll was born.
But don’t be so itchy to move on quite yet. You see, in a very, very incestuous toy industry thriving in an American capitalist society, rendered copies of the popular fashion doll began appearing everywhere. Cissy may have been the first, but mainstream America could hardly afford the FAO Schwarz prices for their children, so companies like Ideal started spitting out vulgar amounts of the new commodity paired with fashion powerhouse, Revlon. Ideal’s Miss Revlon doll became one of the most popular toy dolls in America. Companies thrived for a few years – a short timeframe most thought would never end…until it did…with the introduction of Barbie.
Four short toy-vomiting, plastic-producing, image-shaping years in the decade that defined the new ‘modern generation’ of housewives wearing Christian Dior-shaped skirts…poof…gone. It was over almost the minute Barbie was introduced. Barbie was an instant hit relying on the success that came from a smaller doll designed for a child’s little hands (Cissy and many of her spawn measured approximately 20 inches whereas Barbie was almost half the size). Moreover, the new teen fashion queen stylishly arrived with impeccably designed ‘modern’ clothing for the newly emerging woman of the early 1960s, affordability in price coming from Japanese as opposed to American factories…and most of all, parents’ instant dislike of the doll’s adult female figure. No surprise there how Barbie became a hit with kids!
Barbie’s figure has been so widely debated amongst feminists for generations, and yet they all seem to forget the one simple thing about her proportions: she’s a miniature. Barbie was never meant to be viewed naked, but because she was sold in a one-piece swimsuit, it was pretty tough to overlook her womanly attributes. Pair that with the fact of working with anything miniature, one must greatly minimize bulk to make the fully clothed Barbie even remotely appear normal. This tiny little fact is most notable in Barbie’s tiny little waist, which would appear enormous in clothing if she were actually proportionate to a real human woman. No doll had ever tried to match a woman’s true proportions (a child head on an adult body…really?). How many times will we see serious writers harp on Barbie’s size as if she were a real woman? Well…we won’t see such a naturally occurring woman; not in our lifetime anyway, because Barbie isn’t a real woman…she’s a doll. Nevertheless, she would eventually be blamed for such woes of society including a woman’s self-image, eating disorders, and sexual objectification of women. Please…we’re talking about a doll. And not only a doll, but the only doll ever to have the most wonderful array of fashions, accessories and friends – including that dreamy, perfect-date, genderless man-doll, Ken (oh wait, G.I. Joe was fairly genderless, too). Toys may be influential in shaping a child’s imagination, but it’s the parents that shape a child’s education and his/her understanding of all the influences of which children are exposed. Don’t blame the doll, sweetie.
Love or hate…be that as it may, Barbie is here to stay. She exists as the sweet toy so many little girls (and quite a few boys) lived vicariously through dating, prom, homecoming-queen-drama…you name it. When Barbie’s popularity sank in the 1970s due to many factors such as strengthening feminist roles and an aging childhood base, Barbie underwent several transformations to keep her as Mattel’s cash cow (no pun intended). Now, it was the dawn of the 1980s, and Barbie’s machine of an industry was well underway as it and companies like Madame Alexander (suffering pretty much the same fate with its line of expensive ‘don’t- touch- me’ dolls) contributed to the next major evolution in the doll industry – the emergence of the collectible. What better way to recapture your childhood than to acquire the toys with which you enjoyed as a kid? Partner that with some good ol’ Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, and a Nickelodeon marathon, and the comfort circle is complete, no? Well, kind of…but now we need a place to find all this stuff, right? If only we had the world’s largest yard sale – ahhh, wait…our prayers were answered. Along came eBay, and collectibles would never be the same again…especially to those looking to get rich from the newly emerging market of aging baby-boomers wanting to be young again.
eBay is worthy of its own discussion that won’t take place in this article – but the investment collector and the opportunists that arrived on the collector scene at the same time as eBay play an important role in doll collecting evolution. That is, until the blatant reality of investment collecting became apparent – that collectibles weren’t worth as much as collectors were led to believe. Add a dash of ambiguous, deliberately misleading marketing campaigns, and the inability of collectors to sell for a premium price, and you have one mammoth hot mess. In fact, eBay greatly damaged the heirloom-quality-mail-order-make-convenient-monthly-installments companies like Danbury Mint, Franklin Mint and others…not permanently mind you, but it blatantly told buyers of such ‘heirlooms’ a sobering fact: you wasted your money. Collapse of collectibles’ values ensued in the late 1990s, and you would find collecting as an investment somewhat bitter at best. People didn’t like the fact they couldn’t pay for their retirement with beanie babies, dolls, plates, figurines, etc. Thus, to the delight of many doll lovers, the investment collector dropped out of the game.
When the subject of a collectible holding its value rears its sometimes ugly face, you often hear heated debates. It’s one thing to feel confident about a collectible holding its value, so as to not feel you’ve wasted your money. But to a person who loves dolls, the cash value of the doll isn’t most important – it’s one’s love of the doll. This is why many collectors will tell you, ‘collect what you love.’ Resale value helps in a nice way when recycling collections as tastes change, but it should never be a primary reason to buy a collectible. You collect it because you love it, you want to be exposed to it, behold it – because it makes you feel good, and not because it will make you money.
Along with manufactured dolls, let’s not forget the artist doll, either. The collectible doll arena was dominated by the manufacturers in the 80s and 90s, but specialty artists were making a splash, too. Much deliberation has taken place regarding a doll’s place in the art world. It is after all, sculpture – whether or not it is manufactured is irrelevant. That being said, it’s important to distinguish the true artist doll versus the manufactured variety. Many instances occur where the lines are blurred by the intervention of the artist at any given point during creation and/or manufacture of the doll. So this brings me back to our doll timeline, where at the end of the 1980s, the industry watched an emergence of doll artists rising to the occasion to fill a demand in dolls rendered by artist hands, in one-of-a-kind or small editions, selling for fine art prices. Today, the artist doll can mean many different things, but one must always remember that a doll begins in the form of sculpture, and that is what defines a true artist’s doll as one sculpted by the actual hands of the artist. This being said, there are doll artists, or those that create art with or for dolls. A rose by any other name…?
With the rise in internet popularity, and the ability to create one’s own website, collectors now had a new forum to celebrate their collections without leaving their home. Some would tap into one’s inner creativity by sewing, face-painting, or hair styling – some even going so far as to sell their work amongst other collectors. Others would pull the power of communities together into groups, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. Still others would create the online precursors of digital magazines and blogs by writing about the dolls they loved (or hated).
Doll collecting since the 1990s, with the break-down of the investing collector in the early 2000’s dot.com crash, is simply not the same game…and this will be explored at greater length in the posts to come. This is actually a very exciting time to be collecting dolls! Furthermore, what is important to take away from this history lesson is that dolls clearly mirror life, not only in popular culture, but also in our own individual human needs (such as the need to feel young, the need to be happy, the need to be nourished aesthetically, the need to drool over a fierce pair of shoes…you get the point). People who love dolls understand this – those that ‘like’ dolls probably do not.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the modern baby doll. The history of dolls as toys and as collectibles wouldn’t be complete without covering baby dolls. However, they appeal to people in very different ways than that of fashion or child/toddler dolls (and I’m not referring to babies dressed as Scarlett O’Hara or Marilyn Monroe). Oh yes…we must address the baby doll…often ridiculed, vastly misunderstood, but nevertheless, dolls that are loved.
People collect dolls for many reasons, some of which are fascination with fashion in miniature or the characters represented; or perhaps re-connection to one’s childhood paired with the emotional attachment to baby dolls; or the smile a silly little girl like Betsy McCall can generate. There is a definite psychology at play here…but it is so varied that trying to dissect the cause simply isn’t important anymore except to professional psychotherapists with nothing better to do. But make no mistake: doll collectors are an audience of people who seek impeccable design and craftsmanship, visions that bring joy, and objets one can renew to virtually endless levels.
I do not consider myself to be a doll expert; but more of a doll aficionado. What I know, I have learned from people I have met over the last 30 years – experts, aficionados, enthusiasts, critics and collectors – those who love dolls (and some who don’t). I have been referred to as a cheerleader. Well, wouldn’t you rather cheer about something and let the positive energy save you loads on anti-depressants? Misery may love company, but enthusiasm is contagious, baby…
I never knew what happened to that beloved Barbie from my yesteryear, methinks she perhaps perished in a house fire in the early 80s – my sister thinks some of those toy dolls were given away to other younger children – few of us actually kept our toys in those days anyway, especially military brats who moved about so frequently. I like to think she is still out there, perhaps acquired by a vintage Barbie restoration specialist, and sold to a fellow collector who loves her to this day. A charming thought to think – one that warms the heart, makes imagination sing, and allows this doll lover to always glow brightly. Wanna glow with me? I hope so…