New Life for Old Dolls

During this time of the year, dolls can take on spookier connotations as represented in popular media. There are dozens of stories and movies about haunted or “creepy” dolls, but these toys are the beloved companion of many children throughout history.

“Since the beginning of time…there have been dolls…” (Barbie: The Movie 2023). Archaeological evidence points towards dolls being one of the earliest known toys. The materials and methods with which they are made have varied over the millenniums, by region, culture, and available resources – natural or man-made. Dolls have a meaningful place in children’s play experiences. Not only are dolls fun, but they are an important part of childhood development. Playing with dolls encourages imaginary play leading to positive social and cognitive development.

Every Friday this month we will feature a doll from the LHS Collection that was owned and loved by a child from Leelanau County. 

Meet Syrup

The first doll we have to share with you is named “Syrup.” She is from the late 19th century. Originally owned by Anne Smith, of Leland, and handed down to daughters, Sarah Wolcott Straus and Catherine Wolcott Turner. The bed Syrup is in was handmade by Warren Smith and painted by Caroline Grover Smith, circa 1930, for their granddaughters. We are unsure the exact  material that the doll’s head and limbs are made of, but it is likely a type of paper, painted and filled with a batting or possibly wool. The body of the doll is made of cloth and stuffing. Paper mache dolls were popular during the 19th century.

Syrup was donated by Sarah Wolcott Straus and Peter and Ilene Wolcott.

Currently, Syrup is keeping our Archivist company in the Research Center. 

Meet Claire

The next doll we are sharing with you is fondly referred to as Claire by the Museum staff. She was donated to the LHS Collection by Ruth Tegil in 1973 and is a composition doll. 

Composition dolls are called this because they are made of a composite material composed of sawdust, glue, cornstarch, resin, wood flour and other materials. Claire has a composition head and hands, but her body is muslin filled with sawdust. These dolls were first produced in the 19th century and were marketed as being unbreakable. Unfortunately, over time the composite material deteriorates and causes cracks and flakes on the surface. 

Currently, Claire is watching over visitors as they walk through the Sugar Loaf mini exhibit.

Meet Coco

This week the doll we are sharing with you has been dubbed by museum staff as “Coco” after her rich chocolate colored hair. Coco is a china doll head and is currently perusing the historic newspapers in the History of Michigan Newspaper Exhibit (closing at the end of 2023).

China dolls are named such for the material they are made of, not their place of origin. Porcelain is a specialized type of ceramic. The clay used for porcelain tends to have a higher density and is fired at higher temperatures giving it its distinct characteristics. The heads were sewn onto stuffed cloth bodies and occasionally had porcelain arms and legs as well. This allowed for a bit of mobility to pose the doll during play. They were predominantly produced in Germany between the 1840s and 1930s, the peak period being between 1850-1890. 
Since china dolls were normally left unmarked, the style of hair is generally used to decipher when each doll was made. The doll head in LHS’s Collection has a low brow hairstyle, with curls all over, indicating it was most likely made in the 1890s when this style was popular. The majority of china doll heads were painted with dark hair and blue eyes during the 1800s. Check out this article to help date your china doll:

Paper Dolls

Our fourth and final doll from the LHS Collection is actually an assortment of paper dolls. “Paper dolls were popular playthings from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. Technological advances in the 19th century dropped the cost of printing and made reproducing pictures much easier, leading to an explosion of illustrated, paper ephemera including prints, books, magazines, and cards. The first American paper doll commercially produced as a children’s toy was … in 1812.”
These particular dolls come from the Freeman-Ninde Family of Leland.

Learn more about paper dolls:

More dolls to come…Check back next week for another feature!

In the meantime, check out historic photographs from the LHS Collection of dolls and their humans & early doll advertisements from local newspapers.