A genealogist intrigued by what she didn’t know about black dolls
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    When black dolls talk, Debbie Garrett listens

    Debbie Behan Garrett has a special way with dolls. She hears what they have to say, wordlessly, through the feelings they engender inside her. They are dolls that have led lives, passed through hands (or not) and even strode through history.

    They are dolls that “in some way warmed my heart enough to buy them,” she said. “Not every doll has the ability to do that for a collector.”

    “When Dolls Speak, I Listen.” That’s the title Garrett chose for her current book about black dolls, published in 2011. She used it to show how the dolls in her collection described “their experiences of either how they entered the collection or the things that happened to them after entering it,” she said.

    Debbie Garrett black doll collection

    An array of dolls by black doll artists and black-owned doll companies in Debbie Behan Garrett's collection. All dolls in the photos are from her collection.

    Garrett is a doll whisperer of sorts, but she hasn’t always heard her dolls. She didn’t start out “knowing” black dolls. In fact, when she first began collecting, she hardly knew them at all. So she schooled herself, devouring as much knowledge and information that she could about the dolls she had snapped up early on without thinking about their place in history. She made herself into an expert, and in 2003 wrote her first book “The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls.”

    Today, Garrett’s collection of black dolls numbers in the four figures, and now she’s scaling back and clearing out some of them. But it has been quite an experience. Let her tell you about it:

    Did you grow up with a lot of dolls? Were any of them black dolls?

    I grew up with an average amount of dolls for a child whose formative, doll-playing years were the mid-1950s through the late 1960s. As a rule, like many of my peers, I only received dolls for Christmas and on birthdays. We were taught to take care of our things “because money doesn’t grow on trees.” There would also be consequences if we were destructive, so from year to year, when new dolls arrived, I still had my older ones.

    The earliest doll I remember owning is a 1950s blonde girl in pink pinafore, a squeeze toy designed by Ruth E. Newton for the Sun Rubber Company. I must have been 3 or 4 at the time I received it. Thumbelina by Ideal and Tiny Tears by American Character are also early baby dolls I remember loving to nurture. There were others, but these are the ones ingrained in my memory. By my preteen years, Mattel’s Barbie and family became my doll favorites. Barbie had so many accessories and clothing that I enjoyed to mix and match. Barbie’s unsuccessful rival, Tammy and her little sister Pepper, manufactured by Ideal, were also part of my childhood doll family.

    None of my childhood dolls were black. In fact, none of my peers’ or relatives’ childhood dolls were black. Except for the rejected black doll in the movie “Imitation of Life,” I do not recall seeing any black dolls as a child.

    Debbie Garrett doll collection

    Debbie Behan Garrett with dolls from her collection.

    Tell me the story of how you got started collecting?

    During the late 1970s, I subconsciously began collecting black dolls after the birth of my daughter. My goal was to surround her with positive images of African Americans through her playthings, literature and media. I wanted to insulate her from the infiltrated message that there is only one standard of beauty and that non-white people are inferior to whites. In essence, my plan was to teach her to love herself and her culture, and to counteract any attempts to vilify it. Therefore, I chose to purchase black dolls only for my daughter. Most of her storybooks were either illustrated with all black characters or contained at least one ethnic character.

    Purchasing black dolls only for my daughter during the late 1970s and well into the 1990s was often a challenge because black dolls were either not manufactured or excluded from toy shelves in the local market. Because their scarcity became frustrating, I became a letter-writing consumer and complained to several major doll companies regarding the lack of black dolls. Mattel responded to one of my letters by providing a Shindana catalog and their contact information. It was the early ‘80s by then.

    Shindana, a formerly unknown doll company to me, was in the midst of closing its doors after becoming one of the first black-owned American doll companies to mass-produce positive black dolls with ethnically correct facial features. Many of their dolls were equipped with positive messages, such as “Learn Baby Learn” to neutralize the Watts riot mantra “Burn, Baby Burn.” In approximately 1981, I found Shindana’s Little Soft Janie at a store that often stocked sold-out editions. I fell in love with her full lips and pug nose, and purchased her for my then 4-year-old daughter who loved Little Soft Janie, too.

    Before my daughter’s 13th birthday, I ordered a black porcelain doll from a catalog as an intended gift for her. After the doll arrived, I decided to keep it for myself because of its $60 price and its porcelain medium. I had never purchased a “collectible” doll for my daughter and none of her dolls had been as fragile as porcelain. While she was old enough and would have known to take care of it, because I had successfully passed down the old adage that “money doesn’t grow on trees,” I did not want to risk the possibility of breakage. That nondescript, but too costly for a child, porcelain doll became my first “collectible” doll and my first black doll. This was in 1991. I have been collecting black dolls for 22 years and subsequently able to enhance the collection with a huge selection of Shindana dolls including a never removed from box Little Soft Janie.

     

    Debbie Garrett black doll collection

    These circa 1870s cloth dolls were handmade by a former abolitionist, Anna Frances "Fanny" Skinner Henry, and were a gift to Debbie Behan Garrett in 2005.

    How many dolls do you have in your collection and where do you store them?

    I do not have an exact head count of total dolls owned, but they number well over four digits. Most are stored in my doll room that also serves as my home office. Some have migrated to other areas of the home but most are in the designated doll room.

    What’s the oldest doll that you have?

    The oldest dolls I own are a pair of handmade cloth dolls, circa 1870, a male and female couple made of silk and cotton. The female is dressed in traditional mammy attire: a head scarf that matches the floral print of her dress and white apron. She has no hair. The male has black knotted yarn for hair. Both have button eyes and embroidered mouths. These were given to me in 2005 along with their written provenance. Their previous owner, Elizabeth S. Darrah, inherited them from her great-grandmother, Anna Frances “Fanny” Skinner Henry, who was born in New Jersey in 1849 and died in 1940.

    Henry’s father and her husband both served in the American Civil War. According to Ms. Darrah, “the members of the Henry and Skinner families were active abolitionists. I believe that Fanny made these dolls with great affection toward her fellow men and the cause she believed in.”

    After a speaking engagement at Ms. Darrah’s doll club, much to my surprise, she presented these dolls to me.

    Debbie Garrett doll collection

    These portrait dolls of Debbie Behan Garrett's grandsons were made by artist Ping Lau when the boys were 7 1/2 and 2 1/2 years old.

    What’s the most special doll in your collection?

    This is a difficult question to answer because all my dolls hold a special place in my heart, even those that fall into a category that I no longer actively collect. The inspiration that inspired the purchase, the exact space in time the purchase took place, and a multitude of other factors that incited the purchase make each and every one of my dolls special. Asking which is the most special is like asking a mother which child is her favorite. If I have to choose just one, it would be two.

    During the summer of 2008, I commissioned a doll artist to sculpt portrait dolls of my two grandsons. They were ages 2 1/2 and 7 1/2 at the time. Using several photographs taken at several different angles of the boys, master doll artist Ping Lau successfully captured their likeness in resin. Having arrived just prior to Christmas 2008, the boys’ portrait dolls were my Christmas present from me to me that year.

    You can read more about the dolls in a blog entry I posted in November 2012, which includes a video of the various stages of their production.

    Why is it important to collect and maintain black dolls?

    Dolls are inanimate representations of people. They reflect how society views itself and others. When created accurately to produce a positive image, whether for the play market or for the serious adult collector, black dolls have the ability to aid in instilling self-worth and self-love because people enjoy seeing themselves in a positive light. Who among the sane does not enjoy seeing her reflection in the mirror when she is at her best? When created with love and inclusiveness, black dolls are a reflection of black beauty and society’s acknowledgement of it. Collecting black dolls and recording their origin in the form of books and other media is important for current and future generations of doll owners and collectors.

    Debbie Garrett's doll collection

    These Shindana dolls include a boxed and played-with Little Soft Janie. Shindana's slogan "Dolls made by a dream” is still visible on Little Soft Janie’s box.

    What drives you to collect black dolls?

    I love seeing positive images of black people captured in doll form because I am in love with black people. I am fascinated by the many hues in our color spectrum, our many hair textures (natural or processed), our expressive style and creativity, and our innate ability to nurture. This takes me back to my childhood when I mimicked the instinct of mothering through doll play. While the dolls did not look like me then, I had no real sense or acknowledgement of them being different. They represented babies and I cared for them through imaginative play. Now that I have a choice, I choose to collect dolls that look like me.

    Do you offer presentations on your dolls?

    After writing my first book in 2003, “The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls,” I conducted doll presentations, lectures and exhibits. These took place at local libraries, schools, doll clubs, doll shows, book stores and the African American museum. One out-of-state lecture on black dolls was held at the 17th International Black Doll Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during Memorial Day weekend 2004. I have not presented my dolls in recent years due to time constraints and the waning desire to temporarily relocate my dolls from the comfort of their doll room to public locations. While I no longer conduct in-person presentations, I share my collection with others on a weekly basis through new posts published on my Black Doll Collecting blog.

    Do you belong to any doll clubs?

    Currently, I am an associate member of Motor City Doll Club (MCDC) through which I am also a member of the United Federation of Doll Clubs Inc. (UFDC). Prior to joining MCDC, I was a member-at-large of UFDC, having joined that organization in the mid-2000s. I hold several online doll club memberships and subscriptions in the form of Yahoo! Groups and social media groups. In 2001, I founded the WeLoveBlackDolls Yahoo! Group in an effort to bring together those who share an avid interest in black-doll collecting. Through WLBD, I developed a small community of black-doll enthusiasts who initially actively shared information regarding their collections, doll news and tips on modern-to-vintage black-doll collecting.

    In 2004, WLBD members chose and purchased their first WLBD club doll. Our club dolls have been either manufactured or artist-commissioned annually since then. This year Helen Kish was commissioned to create our annual club doll in honor of a long-time WLBD member who died last year. This doll, created in an edition of only 15, will be the group’s final club doll.

    With a subscribership of over 100 members, participation in WLBD has dwindled in recent years owing to social media outlets for collectors and possibly our sluggish economy, which is now on the rise, but not quite where things should be with reference to peoples’ finances. As disposable income declines, doll purchases and discussions about them decline. A few active WLBD members remain and their participation in sustaining the group is greatly appreciated, but my plan is to officially close the group at the end of 2013.

    Debbie Garrett's black doll collection

    Annual Club Dolls commissioned from 2004-2010 by Debbie Behan Garrett's Yahoo! Group WeLoveBlackDolls.

    Do you specialize in a certain type of doll?

    My focus is black dolls that represent black people in a positive light. I do own stereotypical dolls of the past, but I do not actively collect these. There are other types of black dolls that I no longer actively collect. These include porcelain or any breakable medium, baby dolls, large dolls (over 16 inches) and cloth dolls. There are always exceptions to any rule when it comes to black dolls and me, but as a rule, I avoid adding the aforementioned types and especially larger dolls to my collection because I do not have the space to accommodate them.

    Lack of space and networking with collectors of playscale fashion dolls and action figures incited a recent interest in this doll scale because of size, articulation and affordability. The thrill of owning a new doll can be readily experienced with a new playscale doll without robbing the bank. This size doll (11 1/2 to 12 inches) occupies far less space than the more expensive vintage or modern artist doll.

    Do you have a certain criteria for collecting dolls or do you just buy what you like?

    I had to develop some rules of thumb for doll purchases because buying them solely because they were black didn’t work too well for me. That initial approach resulted in early purchases of high-priced, low-quality, mass produced, so-called “collectible” dolls. After the purchase of my first doll, I became so eager to expand my collection that developing criteria for purchasing them was not a consideration. Two years into collecting, I armed myself with doll knowledge through doll reference books, specifically Myla Perkins’ book “Black Dolls: An Identification and Value Guide 1820-1991″ and later her follow-up title “Black Dolls: An Identification and Value Guide Book II.”

    Before reading Perkins’ first book, my knowledge of black dolls of the 1950s and prior was literally nonexistent. Her books inspired my mission to collect black dolls that had been manufactured during my childhood and in years prior. My other doll-buying criteria include the three C’s: cosmetic appeal, condition if purchased on the secondary market, and of course, cost.

    Do you collect other types of things besides dolls?

    Besides three-dimensional dolls, I have several other smaller collections: Paper dolls, Black Heritage stamps, Black Americana ephemera and black angels. My books written by African American authors (fiction and nonfiction), I suppose, could be considered a collection along with my doll reference book library.

    Debbie Garrett doll collection

    Franklin Mint's Michelle Obama Official White House Portrait Doll, at left, has been restyled to illustrate the hairstyle and gown worn at the 2013 Inaugural Ball. The Essence of Lady Sigma, center, was designed to capture the character of a sorority sister. Mirror by Goodreau Doll LLC, right, was the first African American ball-jointed doll made in any medium by any company.

     

    Is there one doll you’ve always wanted but haven’t been able to find?

    I would love to own an original Leo Moss doll. He was an American doll maker from Macon, Georgia, who made portrait dolls of relatives and friends during the late 1800s through the 1930s. The majority of his dolls were black, but white dolls have been documented. The cost of a Moss doll in today’s market has prohibited my ownership, but I remain hopeful.

    Where do you usually buy your dolls from?

    Most of my doll purchases are made online through online doll shops, from artists who sell their dolls directly, and by winning eBay auctions for those elusive vintage dolls. During my collecting infancy, prior to Internet doll-buying access, many dolls were purchased from shopping channels and through doll periodicals such as Collectors United and Master Collector. In the distant past, an occasional in-person doll purchase was made, but in our current age of instant gratification and desire to get it now and for the least possible price, online shopping has taken the place of brick and mortar doll shopping.

    Have you had your collection appraised?

    I know the value of my collection. For the past several years, I have documented each doll purchase on an Excel spreadsheet. Each entry includes name of manufacturer, year made, doll’s name, a physical description, the cost paid and the current market value.

    Debbie Garrett black doll collection

    Chandra, left, from Mattel’s So In Style Barbie line originally designed by Stacey McBride-Irby is paired with a male action figure. Antoinette Spice and Russell Williams, center, are two re-dressed fashion dolls by Robert Tonner. Trichelle and Darren, right, are from the So In Style line.

    Someone mentioned to me that doll collecting is an obsession? Do you agree? Can you ever have too many dolls?

    Doll collecting can be an obsession for those who have an obsessive-compulsive personality. If a person has more dolls than space allows or more of anything than space allows, they have too many and may need serious intervention. I am bordering on too many and am in the process of scaling back and controlling the urges to add to my collection.

    How did you come to write your book on black doll collecting?

    In 2002, fellow black-doll enthusiast Valerie Ward shared my passion for black dolls and the importance of their documentation. She desired a more current black doll reference than Perkins’ books, the last of which had been published in 1995. Ward expressed her desire with the CEO of Hobby House Press Inc. and encouraged him to contact me. Gary Ruddell’s email proposal and request for me to author “The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls” soon followed. I initially declined his request by using the convenient excuse of “where would I find the time to write a book?” A change of heart ensued after I prevented apprehension from interfering with this much-needed work. Six months later, the manuscript was submitted and the book published during the summer of 2003.

    How has being an expert on black dolls changed your outlook, or made you a better or different collector?

    With over two decades of collecting behind me, my doll purchases are now very selective. I steer clear of mass-produced dolls that will be seen in a typical doll collection because of their ready availability. I am more focused on maintaining a collection that exhibits a unique variety of black dolls to include those created as one-of-a-kind, dolls made by African American artists, special-edition dolls made in low quantities, and dolls that look like real people as opposed to those with “dolly” faces. I am also quite fond of dolls with historical significance such as portrait dolls of famous African Americans, past and present. Black dolls made during my childhood still hold a special place in my collector’s heart.

    Debbie Garrett's black doll collection

    Playscale fashion dolls by Mattel. Standing, from left, are Barbie, Nichelle, Desiree and Barbie. Seated, from left, Christie and Halle.

    Tell me some things you uncovered about black dolls in your research that most folks – novices like me – don’t know.

    1. The percentage varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but as a rule, fewer black dolls are produced when there is a white counterpart.

    2. Because black consumers are rarely major doll companies’ target consumer market, they are hardly, if ever, considered or consulted during the development of new doll lines. Their goal is to produce what they feel will sell and many believe black dolls will not. Companies with this marketing mindset also still believe black parents will buy the white doll in the absence of a black one; therefore, black dolls are not their focus and never will be because research shows that like caters to like.

    3. Gradually, more culturally aware parents and parents of biracial children are embracing companies that manufacture black dolls. The trend for doll collectors to support African American and other doll artists of color, rather than looking to others to create dolls in their likeness, is steadily on the rise.

    4. Every doll is not a plaything. Some dolls are specifically designed for adult collectors and are not intended for child’s play.

    5. Other manufacturers and artists make fashion dolls that are often mistaken as Barbie by the non-collector. It should be noted that every fashion doll is not Barbie.

    Tell me a little about yourself.

    I am the married mother of two grown children and grandmother of two boys that I adore. My husband is very supportive of my doll-collecting hobby and appreciates my recent efforts to find new loving homes for the ones that are no longer endearing to me. As a virtual employee, I work as an allied health professional in the field of healthcare documentation. I have always loved the written word, to write it and to read it.

    When not collecting dolls, I enjoy watching informative documentaries, listening to soothing music, spending time with my grandsons, and curling up in the bed with a good book (a physical copy or one stored on my Kindle).

    ____________________________________

    If you collect black dolls or know someone who does, please let me know. I’d love to write about them and their collection. If you have any doll memories, please share those, too.

    Here are the other blog posts in the black dolls and their collectors series:

    Barbara Whiteman and the Philadelphia Doll Museum

    Aunt Sarah’s Dolls

    Memories of a special doll and a love for baby dolls

    My chance meeting of a black doll collector

    A surprising mix of black dolls at convention

     

     

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    3 Comments

    1. I really enjoyed this conversation with Debbie. Thanks for putting it out there. I collect AA dolls and enjoy following Debbie’s website.

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