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The Wilson Museum Bulletin
Spring 2007 Vol. 4 No. 29

by Mary Webster Seeley

Forbes Doll by the Boston Globe

It is truly a delight for me to write an article on paper dolls. Little did I know when I was playing with my beloved paper dolls in my childhood that my journey with them would go this far. I am most fortunate to still have my original childhood paper dolls. Of course, these are my most treasured paper dolls. However, in the past ten years I have grown to appreciate newly discovered vintage paper dolls. As I continue in my writing, I believe the reader will understand why.

What is a paper doll? Many of us grew up with them, but it has been my experience to occasionally encounter an individual who is not familiar at all with them. Most paper dolls are of cardboard material and have several different outfits. Some of the very early ones are of the doll clad only in a colorful outfit. Most typically, extra clothing has tabs which, when bent back, hold the outfit onto the doll. Other ways of attaching the clothing include those with a neck extension on the outfit, fitting under the head (early dolls), those with a front and back to be slipped over the doll's head, and those with magnetic outfits. More contemporary ones have sticker-type outfits to be attached to the doll. Paper dolls throughout the years have come in envelopes, boxes, sheets, or cardboard books. Some are thicker with a feel of wood.

Paper dolls have been made in all different sizes. In my personal collection, my smallest one is 3½ inches. My largest one measures 35½ inches. Then, of course, there are all sizes in between. Some collectors specialize in certain areas. For example, some may collect only children, celebrities, or pre-1930s whereas others choose to collect only cut paper dolls, only uncut, or both.

Early paper doll sets often came advertising a particular product, e.g., sewing, bakery, or medicinal products. With the purchase of the product the little girl would receive a doll or outfits.

Women's magazines often came with a page of paper dolls for the child to cut out. Such publications were Ladies' Home Journal (Lettie Lane Series); Pictorial Review (Dolly Dingle) and McCalls (Betsy McCall). These proved to be very successful in marketing -- some would even name the stores where the actual clothing could be purchased.

Ethel published by McLoughlin Bros.

Early paper dolls (late 1800s and early 1900s) are particularly colorful. They were mostly done by a process called color lithography. This was done by adding color from flat stones or metal plates to the paper. If we examine these dolls and clothing carefully, we can see that certain colors stand out more than others. Beautiful! Printers could produce those in large quantities.

Many early paper dolls were made from pieces of "scrap" (very colorful) prints originally designed to be put in a scrapbook. A child could easily take the head of one of these pieces, then make the body and clothing and end up with a very charming set.

I suppose that many paper doll enthusiasts began their interest in their childhood. However, there are others who acquired an interest later on in life. I personally have been helped and enriched through many sources. These include paper doll reference books, periodicals, local paper doll collectors groups, and even a national Paper Doll conference.

Meticulous records have been kept, so that nearly every paper doll set (most with a picture) can be identified. This is particularly true of the paper doll sets from the 1900s. Some of the most well known publishing companies in that era producing paper dolls include Whitman, Lowe, Saalfield, Merrill, and Samuel Gabriel and Sons. I believe all have archives owned by organizations or individuals so they can be preserved. Mary Young, an expert in the paper doll field, has done outstanding research and has published several reference books.

Paper dolls are a wonderful source of history, culture, literature, costume, art, marketing, and nostalgia. Most collections of today include many paper dolls beginning in the late 1800s all the way to currently marketed ones. The earliest I have in my own personal collection are dated in 1885. It is thrilling to realize that something as fragile as paper dolls and their outfits have survived for well over 100 years. I especially enjoy the cut-out dolls and outfits, as I think of the little girl who spent so many hours diligently using her scissors to neatly (for the most part!) cut these out. These beloved objects would give her many hours of play time. Early paper dolls often came with materials to assist little girls in making their own clothing (crepe paper, paper patterns, embroidery thread, etc.). Paper dolls were more affordable than "real" dolls. Thus, throughout most years in the U.S., even during economically depressed years, many little girls could afford paper dolls. Many cut sets are valuable, but uncut sets have even greater value.

Polly's Paper Playmates - Supplement to Boston Post

I shall attempt to give an overview of some of the various aspects of paper doll collecting. This is difficult to do, since these are broad topics. Some of the topics overlap, as you will see.

So much history can be learned through the study of paper dolls. Paper dolls were made before Queen Victoria of England's reign. American society was greatly influenced by Europeans. There is one particularly well known company, Raphael Tuck and Sons, Ltd. which began in 1866. Raphael Tuck was born and lived in East Prussia. Because of the Prusso-Danish and Austrian war he moved with his family to London in 1865. The company did various artwork and later produced many paper dolls. Many Raphael Tuck and Sons paper dolls we see today bear the trademark (easel and palette) on the backs. Those during the reign of Queen Victoria usually say "Published by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen -- 1894", or something similar. Another early company producing paper dolls was McLoughlin Brothers, which was founded in 1828. Paper dolls of both companies are sought by collectors and often found today.

Continuing on in the topic of history, we see there have been many sets made in the U.S.A. that help to educate us. Several have been made of the U.S. Presidents and their wives. One set (1937) even includes beautiful gowns worn by the wives or hostesses of each President up through Franklin D. Roosevelt. On the page beneath the gown is included brief historical information of the time. Often, it tells of the significant occasion upon which the gown was worn as well as a description of the gown itself.

Many sets of the early 1900s show military uniforms of World War I. There are also illustrations which show how people lived during those years, e.g., knitting for the military, conservation of food, etc. There were large numbers of military sets produced in the 1940s. Now we see many of the paper dolls themselves as soldiers -- men and women -- in all branches of the military. The clothing for these sets would include both military and civilians of that era. A particularly fascinating set is "Girl Pilots of the Ferry Command." I researched that subject and found a library book telling more about women pilots.

Jointed Doll with crepe paper outfit
Jointed doll with crepe paper outfit by Dennison Manufacturing Co.

We shall move to touch on a few cultural aspects of paper dolls. Many sets illustrate children and adults around the world. Beautiful costumes of their native countries are included. Some examples of these countries represented would include Canada, Greenland, several countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. We see glimpses of the different customs and life-styles in these sets as well.

The next few paragraphs will relate mostly to our own country's culture, although some would include other countries as well. There have been many paper dolls showing wedding parties, particularly of the bride. These began in the 1800s and have continued right up to modern day times. Some of the older sets actually include a preacher, in addition to the usual wedding party. It is so interesting to see how the gowns have changed throughout the years. I have found some sets with pink bridal gowns (in the 1950s).

I shall briefly discuss celebrity paper dolls. The majority of these began with the advent of motion pictures. Some collectors highly value this type of paper doll. I will name only a few of the adult stars, but the list could be expanded greatly. Claudette Colbert, Betty Grable, June Allyson, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, are often seen. Childhood stars include Shirley Temple, Gloria Jean, Jane Withers, and Margaret O'Brien. Some of these sets include specific costumes worn in films in which they starred. Paper doll sets have been made including the characters of books and movies, e.g., Gone with the Wind and Little Rascals (Our Gang). Other famous people include the Dionne quintuplets of the 1930s, and skating stars, such as Sonja Henie.

Let us go on to the comics. Tillie the Toiler and Jane Arden were early comic strip characters. Paper dolls were drawn of them as well as of others in comic strips. Dagwood and Blondie are familiar names and faces to most of us. Many sets have been drawn of them -- most include Alexander and Cookie. I have one uncut paper doll book which includes a few comic strips on the pages of the outfits. Little Orphan Annie and the Archie series are shown in paper doll sets. Newspapers would often come with a supplemental page of just paper dolls.

Advertising Doll
Advertising Doll for the Willimantic Thread Company

Sets often show a typical middle class family. Many sets have only babies -- some with baby furniture in which to place the baby. Many have only children. Several popular sets of teenagers begin in about the 1940s. Often they go to proms, the movies, or roller skating. One set even shows them drinking Coke! Several books have been made of Native Americans, along with the tribal names. Cowboy and cowgirl outfits are very plentiful. Sadly, most of these early sets were Caucasian, except for a few with African-American servants or children. In the 1960s, we begin to see more and more sets including black children illustrated in their rightful place of our society.

Another of my favorite aspects is art. I have a copy of Mary Young's book Paper Dolls and Their Artists. It is fascinating to see and collect dolls done by specific artists. Many artists have backgrounds of art schools or studies in costume design. Many drew for greeting card companies, magazines, or for children's books as well as doing paper dolls. Each has her/his own style and is recognizable after study and experience.

One delightful artist is Rachel Taft Dixon (sets drawn from 1933 to 1959). She was very well rounded in her work. It includes paper dolls of literature (who doesn't love Louisa May Alcott's Little Women?). Dixon also did an historical set showing dolls and costumes from the Medieval era up to and throughout Colonial days. Another set has lovely costumes of Europe; yet another has two African-American middle class children (1955). As was mentioned earlier, this was unusual for that time period.

Another beloved artist is Queen Holden (sets from 1928 to the early 1980s). She is one who did very distinctive dolls with sweet faces and adorable outfits. She did family sets, as well. Many of us had her paper dolls in our childhood.

Sometimes, a different artist would draw the outfits from the one who did the paper doll. Clara Ernst Barnes probably has the record for creating the most outfits (mostly in the 1940s). Her style is particularly recognizable. Even the tabs are shaped in the same way.

Darling Muriel
Darling Muriel published by Raphael Tuck & Son

Another topic I should like to further discuss is costume, design and dress. This is a fascinating part of collecting. Paper dolls from the middle 1800s through the early 1900s depict very elaborate clothing, most often with hats as well. Everyday clothing would also be included. I love the low-waisted dresses of the early 1920s. We see many patriotic outfits, sailor suits, dresses with flags, and military uniforms. Ballet and skating sets have gorgeous outfits, as do celebrities. Sometimes even poor children have typical outfits. One we see is Ragsy with her patched clothing in the Kewpie set of Ritsy and Ragsy. Much thought and research was done in creating the outfits. Clothing of the 1940s and 50s are also typical of that era. Here we often see phonograph records, telephones, and prom outfits. Little girls (or their outfits) are shown with dolls in nearly all eras. Little boys often have balls or soldier toys.

Pure fun and relaxation is one topic I must not forget to mention. Any serious or even casual collector could attest to that. What a thrill to find something one has been looking for. This can include traveling to different areas in the search. Even organizing and arranging my own paper dolls is fun for me.

In conclusion, I truly believe that my hobby of collecting vintage paper dolls has greatly broadened my general knowledge and appreciation of so many areas. Most of these have briefly been touched upon in this article.

It is encouraging to know that in recent years, there has been a resurging interest in vintage paper dolls. There was a decline in production of paper dolls in the 1950s. Most would attribute this to the advent of television, then later to computers, etc. There are more collectors now. Some magazines are once again printing a page of paper dolls. Companies are producing paper dolls and modern artists are drawing them. Current ones include book form, magnetic and sticker type. The two latter types make it easier to dress the paper dolls. Some current publishing companies reproduce old sets which often are a reminder of one's childhood. These are much less expensive than the vintage sets and are satisfying to some. They are also useful in research, allowing one to see the lay-out of the original uncut page.

I have a deep interest in promoting this wonderful hobby. I would be most willing to help others who may be interested. I can give tips on how to get started. Antique shops, paper shows, and eBay are great sources. Museums and specialty shops often have modern ones. The museum ones are especially educational, as well as fun. I would also be happy to help identify any specific paper dolls any readers may have.


Mary Webster Seeley is a graduate of Eastern Maine General Hospital (now E.M.M.C.) School of Nursing. She is the daughter of Ashley Webster, who was born and raised in Castine. Mary has spent parts of nearly every summer of her life in Castine and dearly loves the town.
Mary Seeley

Bajorek, Lagretta. America's Early Advertising Paper Dolls. Atglen, Pennsylvania, Schiffer Publishing Ltd. 1999

Ferguson, Barbara. The Paper Doll -- A Collector's Guide with Prices. Des Moines, Iowa, Wallace Homestead, 1982

Musser, Cynthia Erfurt. Precious Paper Dolls. Cumberland, Maryland. Hobby House Press, Inc., 1985

Whitton, Blair and Margaret. Collector's Guide to Raphael Tuck and Sons. Cumberland, Maryland. Hobby House Press, Inc., 1991

Young, Mary. Paper Dolls and Their Artists Revised Edition. Self-published, U.S.A. 1993

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