Leo Moss, black doll-maker from the 1900s
I was bathed in the black doll culture last weekend. I was shadowing doll-enthusiast Fern Gillespie at the 21st International Black Doll Show and Sale in Philadelphia as she visited and scouted doll-makers for a book she’s compiling on craft artists.
There were about 25 to 30 doll-makers at the show, and these were some of the most talented people I’ve ever met. Some of the outfits they made for their dolls rivaled runway fashions – beautiful fabric with delicate stitching. Amazing.
Fern and I walked up to one booth where a doll-collector was eyeing two vintage dolls – full-bodied, about 12-14 inches tall. They were selling for $250 each.
I watched and listened as Fern, the buyer and the seller talked excitedly about the vintage dolls arranged on long shelves on a table in the booth, along with some more recent ones. Their talk was foreign to me, but fascinating. The seller pointed out dolls that were made in Germany (which manufactured many of the black dolls before World War I with white features), among others.
The buyer practically salivated over a doll that was especially hard to find: a Leo Moss doll. Who’s Leo Moss, I wanted to know. As the seller told me about Moss, she picked up a book from her table, “Black Dolls: An Identification and Value Guide” written in 1993 by Myla Perkins. She flipped to a biography of Moss, and some black and white photos of his dolls. (The photo of the Moss dolls above are from the website Black Doll E-Zine. Click on it to see a full view.)
As the three of them continued their doll-talk, I decided to read more about him. I lingered on two words at the end of the first sentence: Leo Moss was a doll-maker who had lived in Macon, Ga.
The man was from my hometown! Was that serendipitous? I felt the same sense of pride and awe that I had felt back in February when I discovered Charles Richard Patterson, a black car-maker in Ohio during the early 1900s.
I stood there and read every word in the bio, and examined Moss’ dolls in the book. What I learned there and in subsequent research was that he was a handyman who made his dolls around the late 1800s and into the 1900s.
According to a 1978 article in the New York Times, Perkins said in an interview that Moss made and sold white dolls so he’d have money to buy materials for his black dolls of family members. His wife made the clothes for the dolls. The dolls were made of papier-mache, she said, from the scrap wallpaper he picked up at his odd jobs. The dolls’ black skin color was soot from chimneys and stoves.
Some of the dolls had teardrops on their faces. Why he molded the teardrops depends on what you read, according to the 2008 book “Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion,” by Debbie Behan Garrett. Some say that they were added after his wife ran away with a white toymaker who sold him doll bodies. Other say that he added tears if a child cried as he fashioned a doll in his/her likeness.
Moss’ dolls are rare and can sell for thousands of dollars. Barbara Whiteman, founder of the Philadelphia Doll Museum and organizer of the doll show, says on her website that fewer than 100 are around today.
In 2005, at an auction at Theriault’s in Annapolis, Md., which appraises and auctions antique dolls, a 16″doll attributed to Moss sold for $1,000. The auction house noted that the attribution was “uncertain.” Another – 22″ circa, 1920 – sold for $5,600. This doll had the letters L.M. on its shoulder and the text “Leotta 2 years 1920” handwritten and handstitched on a tag on its torso, according to the auction description. It also contained this information: “the child with tears is believed to have been a tribute to the young daughter of Moss.”
In 1984, at a doll clinic in Toledo, Ill., a man brought in two dolls he had retrieved from the trash at an estate sale. They were Leo Moss dolls, worth about $5,000 each.
Isn’t that what we’re all searching for – that rare find.
By the way, the first black doll company – which made dolls in the image of black people – was started by a woman named Beatrice Wright Brewington in the 1960s.
If you are interested in collecting dolls, here’s a link to some tips and information on the composition of dolls.