Nostalgia, paper dolls and auctions
I was at a flea market recently and watched as a woman with her daughter, who looked to be about 12, walked up to a table. The woman spotted an item that she recognized, and excitedly picked it up to show her daughter. I remember playing with these as a child, she told the girl, who seemed mildly interested.
The woman was holding up a large paper doll of a little girl with huge round eyes that opened and closed. Lying next to the girl was a paper-doll boy, about the same size.
Paper dolls bring out the nostalgia in adults – especially baby-boomer females – who remember their hours of selfish fun swapping out clothes on them. I have a sense of playing with paper dolls, but I don’t have any memory.
But I am drawn to them, and I do bid on them at auction. I’ve picked up illustrator Grace Drayton’s Dolly Dingle paper dolls with the round rosy cheeks from the pages of Pictorial Review magazine from the early 1900s, along with other dolls and outfits from the magazine. Drayton created the Campbell Soup Kids.
Recently at auction, I got a paper doll of a little girl – of normal paper-doll size – with 13 outfits, including a bathing suit, party dress, cardigan-and-skirt outfits, and winter suit with fur collar and hat. She and her clothes looked to be from the 1950s.
What was amazing was that the doll and her clothes were all hand-colored, very detailed and in good condition. The paper was starting to curve on some of the outfits, but the colors were still fresh and clean. Did someone make these for her? Were they purchased for her from an artist? Was she the model for this doll?
Even the box they came in was interesting: It had drawings of Washington, D.C., monuments, including the White House, Supreme Court, Capitol, Arlington Memorial Amphitheater and Washington Monument. Looked like the little girl had hijacked the box for her doll and clothes.
There was also a note written in ink: “Carroll Jan has sleeves in her bathing suit – because her shoulders freckle – and she doesn’t like them to.” The paper doll had no freckles. Did its owner? And was Carroll Jan the child’s name or the name she gave her paper doll? Or neither? That’s what I love about auction finds – so much mystery.
I have never come across a black paper doll, but my auction buddy bought a reproduction once at a collectibles show. It was an articulated paper doll, with brass pins attaching the legs and arms to the body to make them mobile.
I saw a similar one in a Washington Post article from 2006 about an exhibit of African American paper dolls at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington. The dolls were in the collection of Arabella Grayson, who had been collecting for 10 years. The exhibit included dolls from the 1800s to the 1960s (Topsey from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Aunt Jemima and Little Black Sambo) to contemporary times (Tiger Woods, Eartha Kitt and a black Miss America).
In my research, I found some more modern black paper dolls, several produced by Tom Tierney, a well-known creator of such dolls: Barack and Michelle Obama, famous African American actresses and women, and a Native American girl.
Paper dolls began showing up in the West around the 18th century, according to my Google research. Early on, they were colored by hand and did not include tabs. By the early part of 20th century, some American magazines were printing paper dolls on their pages. Since 1962, the Barbie paper doll has become the most popular among children, according to one website.
Paper dolls are still around. There are paper-doll artists, paper-doll bloggers and paper-doll collectors. The Original Paper Doll Artists Guild promotes the hobby and offers advice for those interested in starting a collection.