A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 1998


by Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, Curator of Collections



German China Dolls
German China Dolls, c 1850 - 1860,
from a Treasury of Beautiful Dolls, by John Noble

Dolls have been a part of everyday life since before recorded history, and have played a significant role in almost every culture. While the primary function of dolls is as playthings for children, they also are a learning tool -- teaching children a society's ideals of beauty and fashion, and allowing children to practice, imitate and explore adult roles and values.

The oldest doll in the White River Valley Museum's collection dates to the 1860s and has a glazed china/porcelain head. The manufacture of porcelain doll heads began in the late 1700's in Germany, but they did not become popular or common until the 1840's. This popularity lasted until the first quarter of the twentieth century, when porcelain was supplanted by more versatile composition materials and plastics.

The manufacture of porcelain doll heads was described in a 1884 article in Harper's Bazaar:

"China dolls are more exclusively the product of a factory. After being modeled by hand, they are baked in a great oven for a week. During this time the utmost care and watchfulness is required. The tenders are never permitted to sleep. A draught of air will produce disastrous results. A single oven contains 5,000 dolls and thirty ovens are often full at once in one factory. At the end of the week the dolls come out in all conditions. About one if five is perfect. After baking the dolls are painted and glazed."

This large-scale production resulted in a relatively inexpensive, quality doll aimed primarily at the middle-class market. Reflections of Victorian middle-class ideals and attitudes can be seen in the demeanor of these dolls, which one author described as follows:

"These ladies [dolls] are very quiet and serene, with their still, classical features, their hair disposed modestly but with decision. There is no uncertainty here; to be beautiful, noses must be straight, and eyes are best blue. ... They gaze pensively back, facing us squarely, secure in their own quiet world."

As is typical for dolls of this style and period, the doll in the museum's collection has a glazed china head (with shoulders), and lower arms. The rest of the body is made of cloth stuffed with cotton. She is relatively small, only 12 inches tall. The painted hair is black, parted in the middle, and done in soft scallops around the face. The stark white face has blue eyes, plump pink cheeks and red lips. She is wearing a white cotton dress with drawn work, fancy machine-stitching and lace-trimmed neck and sleeves. Her undergarments consist of two white cotton petticoats and lace-trimmed drawers. The most colorful part of her outfit is a pair of hand-knit wool stockings with brown, yellow, black, red and blue stripes.

This doll was donated to the museum in 1971 by Mrs. Herbert Baldwin. The doll had belonged to Mrs. Viola Sturdevant (1878 - 1970), whose mother had been given the doll when she was a child.

Dr. Tina Brewster Wray