Top Navigation

Helen’s Room: A look at Victorian dolls

From the Docent

Every room in the Merrill house is unique. When giving a tour of the Merrill House, we describe how life was like in 1903, pointing out the unusual items, and the items which belonged to the Merrill family. They tour the rooms amazed at what they see, asking where the television is, where the bathroom is, and in the kitchen, they look for a microwave, but one room which stands out for children visiting the house is Helen Merrill’s bedroom.

When I tell them we are going into the little girl’s room, Helen’s room, they all try to jump ahead of one another, but as soon as they step into the room, they are absolutely stopped in their tracks when they see the dolls. They are afraid of them.

The dolls in Helen’s room are from the 19th century. During the Victorian era, a woman’s “porcelain” complexion, unmarked by sun or tan, was a beauty standard of that time. With parasols, gloves, and powder, women shielded their faces and arms from the sun. To mimic that complexion in a doll, porcelain was used on the most visible part, the head. They were made with an unglazed bisque firing and had a more lifelike matte finish that could be painted; doll eyes were brown glass until Queen Victoria inspired blue eyes. The bodies were made of leather, cloth, wood, or a composite. In 1900, a German firm started making realistic bisque dolls, with wigs made from human hair bought from the working-class girls, painted lips and lashes, and dressed in velvet and lace. Most bisque dolls were depicted as adults or older children and presented an idealized image of wealth, and showing the family was part of the upper class. Also during the Victorian era, in 1850 the French introduced the baby, or “bebe,” doll.

In 1910-1920, Kewpie dolls exploded on the toy scene. These dolls were a brand of dolls based on illustrations by American author Rose O’Neill. After appearing in the 1909 edition of Ladies Home Journal Magazine, the Kewpie illustrations and stories began appearing in other women’s magazines.

Raggedy Ann (and Andy) were born when creator Johnny Gruelle’s daughter found a faceless doll in the attic and he drew on the now famous face. He patented Raggedy Ann in 1915 and began writing and illustration of the book. Raggedy Ann took off and in the first 100 years, more than 60 million books and dolls sold global.  Raggedy Ann had red-and-white striped socks, bloomers, and an apron.

Shirley Temple dolls were created by Ideal Toy and Novelty Company and obtained the rights to produce in 1934. Plastic dolls in 1940 had hair rooted in the scalp and dolls could walk and talk.

The Tiny Tears doll could drink from her bottle and wet the bed. The first talking doll was made by Thomas Edison in 1890 and sold in New York for $10 but only 500 were sold. 

In 1960 the fashion dolls appeared. Barbie was introduced in 1959 and joined by her boyfriend Ken. These dolls were modeled after adults or teenagers. Chatty Cathy, the first successful talking doll was a Mattel Toy Company product. She was introduced a year after Barbie and she spoke 11 phrases. She was on the market for six years and in 1960 was the second most successful doll.

During the time Barbie was saturating the market, in 1963 Hasbro created a toy that was a miniature man to sell dolls to boys, specifically military dolls, and this new action figure was called G.I. Joe. It was an immediate hit with sales over 16 million. The first African American G.I. Joe was in 1965. As the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War increased, the military toys dropped. This was the introduction to the many action figures for boys which followed.

The Baby Nancy doll was born after the aftermath of the 1965 riots in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. Activists and community leaders started Operation Bootstrap which launched the community-owned Shindana Toys. Baby Nancy was the first doll designed and produced by Black toy makers, with backing and training from Mattel. Baby Nancy broke ground with ethnically correct Black features. By Thanksgiving, Baby Nancy was the best-selling Black doll in Los Angeles and before Christmas, production could not keep up with the demand.

In 1970, a Kentucky folk art student named Martha Nelson made soft-sculptured dolls and sold them at craft fairs. Artist Xavier Roberts licensed the cabbage patch doll to toymaker Coleco and these Cabbage Patch Kids topped toy sales for three years in the 1980s. In 1990, 65 million Cabbage Patch Kids had been adopted. They were made at a place called BabyLand General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia by Roberts and each doll had individual adoptive papers. 

If you have ever seen the Amish dolls, what’s interesting about these dolls are their faces. They are dressed in the Amish style of clothing, but they have no face. These dolls were left faceless because the Amish belief is that all are alike in the eyes of God.

Tucked away in my daughter’s childhood room is a container with reminders of the dolls of 1973 to 1980. The dolls are not important, but when I see these dolls I can visualize that little girl who played with them and I get a warm, happy feeling all over. The doll bed these dolls are sitting in is from my childhood. Come visit Helen’s room, and see the vintage dolls, jacks, paper dolls, and much more. Email or call 904.665.0064 to arrange your tour of the Merrill House Museum.

Nancy Gandy
Merrill House Museum Coordinator

Copyright © 2019 by Jacksonville Historical Society