by Mary Harrsch
Although I have collected period dolls casually for several years, I did not become a serious historical doll collector until I visited a website put up by another historical doll enthusiast who specialized in Cleopatra dolls. I was amazed at all of the different versions of the Queen of Egypt that had been produced over the years by various doll companies and individual artists. I resolved that day to focus my doll collection and use this hobby to help disseminate historical information in an interesting and enjoyable format.
Since my favorite period of history is the ancient world, I began by looking for dolls of this period but soon discovered, with the exception of Cleopatra, they were a bit hard to find. So I expanded my period of focus to any historical era prior to the 20th century, concentrating on dolls who represented specific historical figures. Ebay provided ample hunting grounds and included dolls from vendors in Europe as well as the United States. I was able to find unique, one-of-a-kind dolls like the delicate Bonnie Prince Charlie featured at right, which was hand crafted using a painting in a book about the battle of Culloden as a reference. I still marvel at the care that went into the detail of this doll from his tiny mohair ringlets tied back with a black velvet ribbon to the intricate engraving on the guard of his sword.
Ebay's doll offerings are so extensive that searching through the thousands of dolls offered for sale each day can become quickly exhaustive and not particularly fruitful unless you narrow your search. Since I had not yet learned which doll manufacturers offered historical dolls, I began by using the keyword "historical". I not only found some beautifully detailed dolls produced by the U.S. Historical Society but discovered the vast array of character dolls produced by English manufacturer, Peggy Nisbet. I also learned that there are essentially two types of historical character dolls - a portrait doll, where an attempt has been made by the manufacturer to sculpt the features to resemble the actual personality, and a costume doll where the costume is detailed but little effort is made to represent the face of the person, with the exception of the hair style and color. I also learned that male dolls were more rare than female dolls and were therefore more highly sought after and usually commanded a higher price. I felt extremely fortunate to win a prototype for Nisbet's Charles II (left).
I also learned that doll manufacturers liked to produce series of dolls and certain groups of historical personalities were more popular than others. I found the First Ladies of the United States were the basis for doll series by a number of manufacturers including Madame Alexander, Nortel, Brinn's, the U.S. Historical Society, Carlson, and Reese International whose line of First Lady Dolls were sculpted by doll artist, Suzanne Gibson. So far, I have been able to add a number of these dolls to my collection and especially like Suzanne Gibson's Mary Todd Lincoln doll dressed in the gown she wore at her husband's inauguration. Although the real Mary Todd Lincoln was quite a bit pudgier than Gibson's likeness, I appreciate the translucent quality of the doll's face, the beautiful spiral curls of the Civil War-era hair style, and of course the rich color and detail of the gown.
I also tried searching for dolls based on a particular country. I had collected a doll of the Romanov period when I had visited the "Treasures of Russia" exhibit at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas several years ago then purchased a doll of 17th century Russia when I toured "Stroganoff: Art of a Russian Noble Family" exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. My search for Russian dolls proved quite productive. I discovered that the artisans of St. Petersburg are now producing some specific historical dolls as well as intricately detailed costume dolls, including a figure of the innovative czar Peter the Great (left). I also began searching by name for famous rulers and members of their court. Henry VIII and his six wives have been a popular series for several British doll makers including Regency, Nisbet, and Rexard (right). I find it interesting that all of these doll manufacturers created a portrait doll of Henry but his queens are only given the costume treatment with the exception of a Nisbet portrait of Catherine Parr, the queen who actually outlived him. His successor, the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, can be found in a wide variety of interpretations including a wonderful hand-knitted doll I was fortunate to obtain from a very talented young woman in Anchorage, Alaska, Janet Oliver. At present I have one of her knitted Henry VIIIs, an Egyptian priest, as well as Elizabeth. When I bid on her Henry VIII doll I sent her an email and asked her if he was created from a pattern. As it turns out, he was made from a booklet of instructions I had bid on several weeks before. I'm so glad I lost the bid to her since I was only bidding on the booklet for reference. I tried knitting years ago and always ended up making the stitches too tight so decided it was not for me.
I also learned that Marin, a Spanish doll manufacturer most commonly noted for their dolls depicting Spanish flamenco dancers and bull fighters, also produces a line of historical dolls for the distributor, Lloyderson. Although I do indulge in costume dolls with clothing representative of a particular era, I hoped I could find specific individuals produced by Marin as well. I was not disappointed. Although Lloyderson dolls frequently command a price exceeding $50, I was able to obtain a Marie Antoinette for considerably less.
I haven't limited myself to just Ebay either. I found a beautifully detailed hand-made collection of porcelain nativity figures at our local flea market in February 2003. Each face was carefully painted, mohair carefully applied for hair and beards, and even tiny jewels applied to the crowns.
At first, I was not going to collect dolls representing figures from American history. Perhaps it just seemed a little too familiar to me or I was burned out by sitting through too many of my husband's western movies. But I found some dolls with costumes so meticulously detailed, I couldn't resist. Carlson dolls, initially a cottage business of a Minnesota Indian tribe, produced a number of non-Indian dolls with nicely detailed period clothes. When I began buying Carlson dolls, I was also breaking another of my personal taboos--dolls with child-like faces. I usually prefer dolls with adult features. However, I found their multiple interpretations of George Washington (right) , along with other colonial figures like Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, revolutionary drummers, Frontier men and women, and even Civil War soldiers and generals irrestible. I even obtained a Spanish conquistador that I have not seen on Ebay since.
I also discovered a line of vinyl dolls by Hispanic artist, Ruben Tejada, depicting authentic Native American dress that I liked very much. Although he produces a series of costumed children of different tribes, I prefer his "Warriors and Princesses" line of adult-featured dolls. The costumes even include beading and face and body paint patterns used by members of the tribes.
I also encountered a company called "Sideshow" that produces wonderfully detailed portrait "figures" (I have learned that companies use different terminology based on their target audience. If the target audience is females, the term "doll" is used but if the target audience is male, the term "action figure" is used even if the figure is essentially a 12" doll - the same size as most fashion dolls.) I was particularly impressed by their "Six-Gun Legends" series, although their "Brotherhood In Arms" (Civil War-era) and "Bayonets and Barbed Wire" (World War I-era) figures are equally impressive. I even bought one of their "King Arthur" figures from their Monty Python line to add to my medieval collection.
I hope to eventually feature all of my dolls on web pages grouped by historical period and character (for those that are popular doll subjects). I will be adding links to these new pages here as I complete them.