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Growing Up With Dolls

Aug 17, 2007
Penny Woodens, as they are sometimes called, are among the most fascinating dolls ever made. Their legs and arms could be moved into very lifelike positions. Their heads and bodies, carved in one piece, could survive the roughest treatment. Their painted faces suffered, it is true, from too many washings or from being left out in the rain, but that was not too serious an injury. Someone in the family could always repaint the face when needed. Best of all, they cost so little that almost any child could afford to have a family of them.

An uncle or a brother who was clever at whittling could make a Penny Wooden in a very short time. In New England, if the men of the family were not so talented, the poppets could be bought for a penny in any Cent Shop. It was an adventure to be allowed to go to the Cent Shop all by oneself. There in a little glass case all by themselves were the penny dolls. On the shelves behind were ranged the more expensive dolls that cost five, ten, fifteen, or twenty-five cents each.

The wax babies were small and pretty. So were the china ones. But they were made all in one piece so that their arms and legs could not be moved. That made them hard to dress. The more expensive wax and china babies had movable arms, but even the tiniest wooden one had both legs and arms that moved.

On a special shelf were the doll heads of various sizes. They were made of glossy white china and had shiny black painted hair, blue eyes, pink cheeks, and tiny rosebud mouths. Sometimes, but not often, you could find a china head with brown eyes, and once in a very great while, you might even get a gray-eyed doll head.

These heads were really more than heads, for the neck and shoulders were molded in one piece with the head. Mother or Aunt Mary usually bought them; made the body, arms and legs of cloth; then glued the head onto the body. In larger stores, one could buy bodies already made, as well as china arms and legs to sew on to a homemade body.

The china parts were made in Germany and shipped to this country in great packing cases that held hundreds of each size. They were sold all over this country and were very much cheaper than dolls are today. Most of these china dolls were "lady" dolls to be dressed in grown-up fashions. They were the mamas of the doll family. The doll in the picture above with its homemade body, arms, and legs, is an unusual "little girl doll" of the 1840s.

The children of the doll family usually were homemade of cloth or wood. Dolls were frequently made by grownups for their children. Then, of course, children themselves have always increased their doll families by making some of their own.

Many different kinds of materials and objects were pressed into service. A hank of flax could be braided to look like a doll, or an acorn could be stuck on the end of a twig to serve the purpose for the time being. Skillful fingers could contrive really elaborate dressed dolls, using corn husks and silk for the working materials. A string tied around a rolled up rag or a piece of wool or cotton batting transformed a common material into a very acceptable "doll-baby".

It is fascinating to make dolls for yourself. There are so many different ways of doing it and so many different kinds of materials to use. Dolls can be made and dressed without a bit of sewing: little ones that can be turned out quickly from odd scraps of materials, and more elaborate ones that are round and soft, and paper dolls whose dressmaker costumes are cut, shirred, and pleated just like real fabric clothes.
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