A doll is a model of a human being, traditionally used as a children’s toy.
Throughout history they have also been used as icons during ceremonies and rituals, and produced as purely decorative or collectable items.
They are primarily designed as toys for girls, as opposed to action figures which are the equivalent for boys. The majority of dolls are models of infants, young girls or women.
Many varieties of doll feature removable outfits which can be changed, moveable limbs and facial features, and accessories such as prams or doll houses.
Modern toy dolls are generally produced from plastic or rubber, whereas dolls created primarily for adult collectors are often made from more delicate materials such as porcelain or celluloid.
Dolls are said to be the world’s oldest toys, found in Egyptian tombs dating back to as early as 2000 BC. These dolls were made from flat pieces of wood, with painted features and hair made of strings of clay or wooden beads.
Dolls were prevalent as children’s toys in Ancient Greek and Roman cultures, and many have been found buried in the graves of children.
The Romans in particular produced dolls which did not greatly differ from those of today, featuring jointed arms and legs and removable clothing. They were commonly made from clay, wax or ivory, and created to be as lifelike as possible.
Throughout the Middle Ages dolls were a popular children’s toy, known as ‘poppets’, ‘puppets’ or ‘babies’.
Records suggest they were manufactured throughout Europe, and by Medieval times they were part of a growing toy trade. Doll-makers are recorded in Germany from 1413, and records of St Bartholomew's Fair, established in 1133, mention stalls containing sweets and dolls.
During this time fashion dolls were created specifically to model the modern styles of the day, and were often given to children as toys once they were no longer needed in the sewing room.
During the Renaissance, Europe became the centre of doll production, with wooden ‘stump’ and ‘peg’ dolls both popular playthings.
Germany in particular produced a large number of these dolls, which were often shaped as knights on horseback and can be considered early toy soldiers. Munich was also considered a centre for the production of wax dolls during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The 19th century saw dolls modelled on babies being created for the first time, and materials for production began to include papier-mache and porcelain. Up until this time the majority of dolls had been modelled on adults, but some of the most popular dolls of the period were the French ‘bebe’ dolls depicting younger girls with delicately detailed faces which appeared from around 1850.
Many of these dolls, from manufacturers such as Bru and Jumeau, are considered some of the most valuable and sought-after for current collectors.
The 20th century saw manufacturing processes change with the development of plastics and the use of vinyl. Dolls became both more durable and more affordable due to mass production.
In 1959 the first Barbie dolls appeared at the American International Toy Fair in New York, based on an idea by Ruth Handler and produced by the Mattel toy company.
They went on to sell 350,000 of the dolls during their first year of production, and have to date sold over 1 billion Barbies in over 150 countries worldwide.
Four years later, in 1963, the British fashion doll Sindy was created by Pedigree Dolls & Toys as competition for Barbie, and a number of similar rival fashion dolls appeared on the market over the next few years.
The 1970s saw the emergence of Blythe dolls, created by Kenner Products. Produced for one year only in 1972, they have become the most popular modern fashion doll for collectors and developed a cult following. In recent years new Blythe dolls have been produced for adult collectors.
The 1980s saw notable doll ranges such as the Cabbage Patch Kids and Strawberry Shortcake, and recent additions include Beanie Babies and Bratz Dolls.
The later years of the 20th century also saw a market for collectible vintage Barbie dolls emerge, along with other toys from the 1950s and 60s. And a distinction began to arise between toy dolls and collectors dolls, as many doll designers began to produce limited-edition dolls using traditional materials such as china and bisque specifically for the collectors market.
This cottage industry of doll designers producing for adult collectors mirrors a similar movement by teddy bear artists, and the 1980s heralded the start of a collectibles market for toys in general.
Types of doll
Antique cloth dolls
Cloth dolls, or rag dolls, have been made throughout history from scraps of fabric. They were generally homemade by families for their children. High end dolls were created from cotton, felt, silk or velvet. In the mid-19th century, cloth dolls began to be mass produced by American and British manufacturers. Often, one mother’s homemade cloth dolls would be so popular that she would receive numerous requests from friends and family, and this would lead to her dolls being manufactured in small studios or even factories. A technique of stiffening fabric allowed dolls to have hard faces that mimicked porcelain and were more resilient. However, dolls with heads made of porcelain, bisque, celluloid etc often possess cloth bodies.
Wooden dolls were created in England between 1680 and the early 1800s. Many were created as folk art, by parents for their children. Some were made to be sold. Early wooden dolls often featured glass eyes and detailed faces, but after the mid 18th century, these ornamentations and quality of craftsmanship deteriorated. Earlier ones often had linen arms, while later examples were entirely wooden.
Dolls were made out of wax since the end of the 18th century, and this material was surprisingly successful before the days of compositions and plastics. As a material, while fragile when exposed to high and low temperatures, wax had the advantage of being less delicate than porcelain and bisque, and could be tinted with realistic skin colours. Wax was still subject to great change and potential damage, making surviving examples of antique wax dolls in good condition somewhat rare. Those which retain their original skin tone and colour, and lack crazing or scratches, can fetch high prices at auction.
Porcelain dolls, also known as China dolls, have glazed faces and often are dressed in luxurious and detailed outfits. This material became popular by the early 19th century. The centre of production of china dolls was in the German Empire. Many of these were created by individual families, and left unmarked. They often had hair added, in the fashionable and extravagant hairstyles of Parisian ladies. Porcelain was not an ideal material for a child’s toy, easily chipped and smashed.
Antique bisque dolls
Bisque dolls are often thought to be the same as china dolls, however, bisque refers to a particular type of porcelain that remains unglazed. This method became popular after the 1860s, and bisque took over as the preferred material until the beginning of the 20th century. Bisque dolls can include fashion dolls (adults), bebe dolls (infants) and character dolls (famous personalities).
Vintage composition dolls
Composition dolls were created in the 19th century, and marketed as unbreakable. They are known as composition dolls, because they were constructed from composite materials: sawdust, glue, resin, wood flour, corn starch etc. This mixture could be moulded, and painted when dry. It was inexpensive and more durable than porcelain. Composition dolls made for some of the earliest celebrity dolls.
The first fashion dolls were French bisque dolls. They imitated grown up women in the luxurious fashions of their day, and were designed for rich children to play with. An industry grew around producing different outfits and accessories for the dolls.
Other fashion dolls began life as the models for costumers and seamstresses, on which they would demonstrate the dresses they could produce for customers. Once these unique dolls had fulfilled this purpose, they were often gifted to children to play with.
The most famous modern fashion doll is unquestionably Barbie, by Mattel, launched in 1959.
Modern doll designers such as Toner, Clea Bella, Doug James and Mel Odom produce hand-crafted fashion dolls aimed purely at collectors, whereas other collectible fashion dolls such as Barbie, Sindy and Blythe were and are produced predominantly as children’s toys.
However, the constantly-changing nature of fashion dolls and the wide variety of outfits mean both types are popular with collectors.
The Bebe doll originated in France, and kicked off a trend of producing dolls in the form of infants rather than adults. Early Bebe dolls had heads of porcelain or bisque, with realistic glass eyes. This was revolutionary, and Bebe dolls became the favourite of children everywhere.
Character dolls are those that take the appearance of a well known celebrity or fictional character. Some of the earliest companies that had this idea were those mass-producing composition dolls, such as Louis Amberg & Sons, who produced the John Bunny doll, modelled after a famous silent movie star, in 1914, and the Baby Peggy doll in 1923, and the American Ideal Toy Company, who introduced the Shirley Temple doll during the Great Depression, in 1934.
In the 20th century, dolls started to be used by companies for advertising, connecting a product with a character. Sometimes dolls were sold as merchandise, or given away as prizes and premiums. These were often cloth, as this was the cheapest type of doll to mass produce, but later with the advent of plastic, that took over as the favoured material, though there are also compositions and wooden dolls. They were often quite small, so that they could be posted to children.
See our list of dolls for individual examples.
Jumeau was founded in France in 1840, and are renowned for their high quality bisque dolls. They were known for their beautiful faces and their exquisite clothes, designed to reflect the fashions of the time. Their contemporaries, the Bru Company, produced similar dolls, and sometimes the two companies exchanged parts, sharing heads and bodies.
Simon & Halbig
Simon & Halbig was established be Wilhelm Simon and Carl Halbig in 1869 in Germany. They became renowned for their stunning bisque heads of great quality, and also produced heads for many other doll companies in Germany, who would make bodies to accompany Simon & Halbig’s heads.
Madame Beatrice Alexander Behrman founded the Madame Alexander doll company after the First World War. Many took the form of popular children’s characters, such as the three little pigs, Little Women, and Alice in Wonderland. She was a pioneer in creating dolls based on living people, such as Princess Elizabeth.
The world’s most expensive doll
The most expensive doll ever sold at auction is a Barbie doll created by designer Stefano Canturi. The doll featured a backless black dress and a necklace featuring three carats of white diamonds and a centred Fancy Vivid pink diamond, both designed by Canturi. It was sold at a New York Breast Cancer Research charity auction by Christie’s in October 2010 for a record price of $302,500.
Guide to Collecting
Dolls can represent the history of civilisation, in the evolution of design and materials used, the scale on which dolls were produced, as well as the costumes and customs of the time in miniature, and the changing image of the self presented.
Doll collecting is an extremely popular hobby. Most collectors will focus their collection, even if just on the different groups of antique, vintage or modern dolls. Many collect dolls from a specific time period and area such as 19th century French or German dolls. Others are interested in one material and manufacture process in particular. Most manufacturers are associated with one material, and this may be another focus – for example, collecting only Bru dolls. Some might focus on dolls that represent particular famous people or characters, icons of the 20th century. Others may collect only fashion dolls, due to an interest in collecting historical examples of fashion as exemplified in miniature by antique dolls throughout history, though perhaps the most famous fashion doll is the more modern Barbie. Some may collect advertising dolls due to an interest in one particular brand, such as the Miss Curity Nurse Doll, the mascot of the Kendall medical company. Some may also collect a doll with a specific theme, such as Kewpie dolls or multi-cultural dolls.
The value of dolls varies hugely dependant on age, rarity, condition, manufacturer and other factors. Antique dolls, made of china, bisque or wax, are sought after and valuable due to their relative rarity. They are far more delicate than their modern counterparts, so fewer survive than the plastic dolls of the 20th century.
Dolls are not generally collected as an investment, but for the joy of ownership. They are not guaranteed to go up in value, especially not in the near future, so it is worth simply buying what you love and enjoying the dolls rather than hoping for appreciation. However, some limited edition dolls of the 20th century are considered rare, often produced specifically for the collectors’ market, and can be quite expensive. These were not designed to play with or for children, but for adults to display.
Dolls can be found through specialist dealers, at auction, on eBay, in second hand and antique stores, at garage sales, at flea markets. There are many doll shows and conventions held around the world each year, which allow collectors to see dolls in person before buying. It is worth joining a doll collecting club or society, to meet other collectors and exchange information, tips, and to trade.
The easiest way to identify a doll is if it bears a maker’s mark. Some of these will state the name of the manufacturer, others will be a symbol that needs looking up. This might also help determine the age of the doll, if the mark changed over time. You may then be able to find the doll in a reference book. Sometimes the mark will also include a reference number, sometimes not. If a doll is completely unmarked, it can be quite hard to identify, and a description will simply state a decade such as the 1930s, the material, such as composition, and sometimes a description of the character or costume.
There are numerous reference websites on the subject of dolls: general ones such as Doll Memories, Doll Reference and theNational Costume Doll Collection, and websites dedicated to specific dolls, for example, Loretta’s Shirley Temple Dolls and the Ideal Flatsy Guide. These can be very useful for a new collector, to familiarise yourself with the collectors’ market. There
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