Searching for a 1960s black Patti Playpal doll
The woman walked directly to the dolls I had displayed on a table near the back of my booth. She was looking for a black Patti Playpal doll like one she had as a child in the 1960s, she told me.
None of the dolls in my booth were black; those go very quickly and sell very well at auctions, so I don’t get my hands on many of them.
I was a little surprised at her statement, though, because I had read that there were no black Patti Playpals from that far back, that the first one had not been made until the 1980s. Hearing the conversation, my auction buddy Janet, who was sharing a booth with me, spoke up.
She, too, remembered having the doll when she was a girl, and the two women got to reminiscing. The early doll had sleep eyes, the woman said, and that’s how you can tell the difference between the 1960s and 1980s dolls.
As I listened to them, I was intrigued about whether such a doll existed and how the memories had instantly connected two people who five seconds before were strangers. Dolls are like that; our memories of them lie just beneath the surface waiting for only a nudge to be awakened. Right then and there, their experiences of playing with a black Patti Playpal created a capsule in time that took them back to those carefree days when their dolls were their companions.
They were among the lucky ones to have had a black doll at a time when only a few companies were making them in the likeness of little black girls. I don’t recall having any black dolls.
They were playing with black dolls at the nascent of African Americans’ accepting themselves with pride, and a few companies were seeing the profit in it. It had not always been that way: Two decades earlier, sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark had conducted an experiment with black and white dolls to show the effect of racism on black children. They found that the children preferred white dolls over black dolls, and saw the black dolls – and themselves – as lesser or subordinate.
The original Patti Playpal was a white doll produced by Ideal Toy Co. from 1959-1961. She was designed by Neil Estern, who worked for the company modeling dolls, and her first batch of clothes was designed by his wife. A sculptor, Estern would later create the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, along with other statues.
Several versions of Patti were made: some were walkers, some not, some had twist arms. They were marked Ideal Toy, G-35. They were 35 inches tall, the size of a 3-year-old.
Ideal did not make a black Patti Playpal doll until 1981, according to several doll websites, including Black Doll Collecting whose author has written a book on black dolls. Several other companies – including Horsman and Uneeda – made Patti Playpal-types during the 1960s and 1970s, according to the website. I found another website with photos of what it identified as Patti Playpal types. The Ashton Drake company made a black Patti Playpal with sleep eyes in 2006.
Apparently the doll that Janet and the woman remembered were not Ideal’s Patti but dolls modeled after her. I found a few of them on the web but none looked like the white 1959 Patti, indicating that they were not made from the same mold.
A couple weeks ago, I picked up a 1981 black Patti Playpal at an auction. She was in a special doll sale that offered more African American dolls than I had seen in one setting – some sold in pairs, some solo, some combined as lots, some still in their original boxes. Several were made by Shindana Toys, a black doll company from the 1960s.
There was even an Amosandra doll whose arms and legs had melted and caved in. This doll was based on the daughter of Amos from the Amos and Andy radio show on CBS in the 1940s. It was designed by Ruth Newton, a children’s book illustrator. The doll was missing its painted eyes.
Most of the dolls at the auction were from the 1960s and had belonged to one collector, according to an auction-house staffer. The black Patti had been arranged standing against a back wall with about four other life-sized dolls in the Patti family. The auctioneer noted some eeriness in having to walk past dolls that looked much too real.
The black Patti didn’t spark intense bidding, but at least two people wanted her. I watched as the bidding went back and forth until it stopped at around $50. I wasn’t about to let this sweet little girl go for so piteous a sum, especially since she was in such good condition. So I stepped in and pushed the bidding up to a price that was less than $100. A white Brunette Patti Playpal went for a little less.