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    Auction Finds

    A question about handmade black doll toaster cover

    Fridays at Auction Finds is readers’ questions day. I try to guide readers to resources for them to determine the value of their items. I’m not able to appraise their treasures, but I can do some preliminary research to get them started. So, these are market values based on prices I find on the web, not appraisal estimates for insurance purposes that I suggest for items that have been determined to be of great value.

    Today, I have question of my own. It pertains to a handmade black cloth doll that I bought at an auction a week ago. I emailed a photo of it to doll collector and expert Debbie Garrett.


    An up-close view of the face of the black doll toaster cover.


    I picked up this cloth doll at auction and thought I’d ask you about it. It’s obviously handmade, both in its body and its clothing. The doll has no lower body, just what appears to be a small piece of flat wood covered in fabric. I can’t tell if the face is composition or papier-mache. The back of the head is cloth. I’ve attached photos for you to peruse. Does the style of the doll look familiar? Is it a doll with no particular pedigree, just one that a loving mother in the 20th century or earlier may have made for her daughter?


    Your doll is a toaster cover doll. I have a few in my collection which are made of cloth with hand embroidered or painted faces. I have never seen one with a papier-mache face, which makes yours rare. Mine are featured in my book “The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls.”

    My reply:

    I couldn’t find one like it on the web. Now, I know why. I didn’t try searching for a toaster cover.

    I was even more intrigued because Debbie mentioned that the doll was rare. I bought her at an auction a week ago along with an ethnic Norah Wellings doll. I thought they both were lovely and decided to bring them home with me.


    A full view of the black doll toaster cover.

    The toaster-cover doll is folk art, an artifact categorized as Black Americana. She was obviously handmade, based on the disparate pieces of fabric used for her clothing and to cover the wooden platform under her dress. A commercial cover would be uniform in its appearance.

    She has small white buttons for earrings attached to her head with short black threads. She has painted side-glancing eyes (with tiny red dots in the inner corners, a staple on many early dolls so they wouldn’t look cross-eyed)  and small red painted lips. Her face – which Debbie mentioned was actually papier-mache – is cracked. The face is sewn to the back of her head, which appears to be made of linen fabric.

    Her body and arms are made of cloth and stuffed with a hard material. The fabric of her clothes dates her to at least the early 20th century. The clothes are machine-stitched and have faded from age.


    A side view of the doll’s face showing where the face and back of head are stitched together.

    The fabric on the small platform is both sewn and attached with what looks like thumbtacks, but appear to be a bit sturdier. She is about 13 inches tall. At first I thought she was one of those mammy dolls because of the apron she wore over her print dress and the kerchief sewn to her head.

    When I first saw her at the auction, I wasn’t sure what to make of her appearance. What was the small piece of wood all about? Why didn’t she have lower extremities? It never occurred to me that she could be a toaster cover. But when Debbie identified her, it made sense.

    Researching the doll a second time as an “African American doll toaster cover,” I found listings for tons of Aunt Jemima covers and patterns. They seemed to consist of any cloth doll with an apron and kerchief. Most had fabric faces with wide uncomplimentary – and stereotypical – red lips.

    I came across one doll on eBay that resembled her.


    Underneath the dress of the black doll toaster cover is a small wooden platform.

    African American dolls constructed of different types of materials – recycled materials, as Garrett wrote in a blog post – were made by women during slavery, according to the Encyclopedia of American Folk Art. These dolls, made by women with the skills of a seamstress, took the form of ministers, preachers and others considered upwardly mobile in this new fragile population of free people. Dolls were also made from whisk brooms, toaster covers, feather dusters and mops, according to the book. The upper part of their bodies were made of cloth stuffed with various materials.

    Some dolls were sold commercially as tourist items, according to the book, but they retained their individuality – perhaps because they were handmade.

    Papier-mache, I suspect, was not a common item in the households of these women. Since the makers used found materials to make their dolls, maybe this owner came across the papier-mache face somewhere and applied it to her toaster cover because it was different.


    The back of the head of the black doll toaster cover.

    The earliest full-sized papier-mache dolls were done by hand, but they began to be mass-produced by the mid-1800s. German doll-makers – considered the leaders in the industry – seemed to have used it extensively, along with the French, English and Americans. Leo Moss, an African American doll-maker from around the turn of the 20th century, also made his dolls from papier-mache.

    It was still being used in the 1920s on full-sized dolls, as seen in this 1921 Sears catalog ad of dolls for sale. Garrett mentioned in a subsequent email that one collector had a circa 1950s cloth doll that was a vacuum cleaner cover.

    The doll at auction seemed to be a pretty good find. But it still conjured up all kinds of questions that most likely will never be answered: Did the woman make the toaster cover for herself? For someone else? I’d love to know.



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