Topsy Turvy black and white doll
The auctioneer had a hard time getting someone – anyone – to bid on the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. Several people had already bought what they considered the best of the dolls: Barbie and friends in a trunk with loads of vintage clothes and an array of Madame Alexander international dolls.
No one seemed to want the cuddly Raggedys. Maybe we all figured that children aren’t drawn to them anymore and we’d be stuck with them. I had looked them over during the preview and saw that one bore a tag with the name Knickerbocker and the other with the name of Raggedy Ann’s original creator Gruelle.
So like everyone else I stood silently as the auctioneer dropped the bid and dropped it and dropped it. Finally, he threw out $2 and the offer just lingered there. To take him out of his misery, I accepted the bid and walked away with the three dolls.
When I got home and examined them closely, I made a surprise discovery: One of them was a Topsy Turvy or upside down doll – with a white face on one end and a black face on the other. In the box at auction, only the white face was showing. A week or so ago, I had found a newer handcrafted Topsy Turvy in a box lot of small stuffed dolls. Last year, I had seen a vintage one at a doll auction, and as I recalled, it did not go cheap.
My Topsy Turvy was clean and appeared vintage: The apron on the black doll had stains from age, and the facial features were the typical red lips (the white doll also had the same cutout felt lips) and Aunt Jemima headrag. The doll looked to be handmade.
It was a typical Topsy Turvy, down to the choice of clothing. The black woman was stitched as a maid – plain with a sheer apron, red dress with white polka dots and red kerchief on her head. No adornment at all. The white woman was outfitted stylishly in a blue dress with matching ruffled hat, collar and waist. Her yellow yarn hair peeked out from under her hat.
Topsy Turvy dolls, based on my research, were first made by black women on southern plantations before the Civil War and before the Topsy character appeared in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” There was some debate about how they were first used. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders stated in her 2008 book “Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory” that black mothers may have given them to their little girls as a prelude to their lives as caretakers of white children or the mothers may have been showing themselves in that role.
These were among the earliest handmade rag dolls, according to Wallace-Sanders. Late 19th-century dolls were manufactured with lithographed rather than hand-sewn faces, and a company called Babyland Rag Co. came out with a doll with a hand-painted face in 1901. Some later dolls were made of wood. The dolls were likened to the Pennsylvania hex doll – head of a human on one side and a pig on the other – that was used to cast spells in the 18th century.
By the 1940s, several pattern makers – including Redline and Vogart – offered Topsy Turvy dolls, some with the name Topsy and Eva from Stowe’s 1852 novel. Topsy also became the name for several black dolls with short tufts of hair manufactured during the early part of the 20th century.
Like Topsy and Eva, the Topsy Turvy doll and its makers made strong political statements about people and race. Wallace-Sanders said that it showed black women in a country that was “simultaneously segregated but interconnected.”
African American artist Nina I. Buxenbaum has appropriated the image and used it in her paintings, drawings and dramatic presentations. Recently, Buxembaum and artist Zoë Charlton used the image and concept of the doll to delve into the issues of race, femininity and identity in an exhibit at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore called “Fair and Lovely.”
“I use the ‘Topsy-Turvy doll’ as a metaphor of black women and the way we learn to define ourselves,” Buxenbaum wrote on her website. “… The internal self and the self we project out to the world are often disparate or opposing, sometimes in subtle ways. As I continue to paint these women, I find deeper layers that tell more complex stories about who we are and who we pretend to be.”
Some of her artwork depicted women as Topsy Turvy dolls.