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A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANTIQUE DOLLS–Part I, Early Dolls through Papier Mache and Wax

Saturday, July 18, 2009 @ 01:07 PM Karen Hood

There is so much to learn about antique dolls and their costuming–their history, the history of their creators, manufacturers and seamstresses, how children played with them–research turns up more information about all of this each year, as prices and collector interest continues to rise on all but the most common antique dolls.

All dolls created before approximately 1930 are considered antique. This is a somewhat arbitrary division, but in general, most pre-1930 bisque, china, papier mâché, wood, and wax dolls are considered antique by collectors. For years, all-composition dolls were considered modern, but that is slowly changing, and many of the pre-1930 composition dolls are now considered antique. One reason for this division is that many of the German manufacturers of bisque dolls made them from the 1890s through about 1930, and it is often hard to tell exactly what decade the doll was produced if it is not in original clothing. Most dolls you find today are, unfortunately, not found with original clothing, wigs, shoes and undergarments. Although this is mostly a historical series, general price ranges have been included for many types of dolls.

Early Dolls

papmache.jpg (28944 bytes)The majority of antique dolls found today were manufactured from 1850 on, although dolls representing adults from the 17th and 18th century are rarely found. Most of the very early dolls were made in England by individual craftsmen who carved the dolls of wood,painted their features, and also costumed the dolls. Collectors call the wood dolls from England from the 18th and early 19th centuries “Queen Anne” dolls, which is somewhat confusing, since Queen Anne’s reign ended in 1714! These dolls, in good to excellent condition, are extremely rare, and cost from about $1,500 for an early 19th century doll, to well over $20,000 for dolls made in the late 17th century (very few have survived–less than 30 by some reports).

Papier Mache

Next oldest, and easier to find are the papier mâché dolls made from the beginning of the 19th century through the early 20th century. These dolls were mass-produced in Germany, France, and the United States, and proved a cheaper alternative to wood dolls, since molds could be used. The beginning of production of these dolls marked the beginning of the powerhouse German dollmaking industry, which would dominate the doll industry (except for the heyday of the French Bébé) until World War I. The first well-known American doll maker, Ludwig Greiner of Philadelphia, made papier mâché dolls from 1840 to 1874, and then his sons until 1883. Most papier mâché dolls have molded hair painted black, wooden limbs with a kid body, and painted eyes. A few choice dolls have glass eyes. The value of papier mâché dolls has started to rise because of the difficulty of finding them in excellent condition, as well as the out-of-sight prices of the sought-after early French and German bisque dolls. Prices range from about $500 for a small, marked post-1872 Greiner up to $2,000+ for exceptional German “milliners” models, and French examples from the early to mid 1800s.

Wax Dolls

wax.jpg (16923 bytes)The wax doll is generally a contemporary of the papier mâché doll. The earliest wax dolls found by collectors tend to be the poured wax dolls made in England (after the demise of the wooden doll industry) from 1840 through the remainder of the 19th century, although pressed wax dolls were made before this time for the very wealthy. The poured wax dolls were made by pouring liquid into warm molds, and then, the hair, and glass eyes were set in the head. Poured wax dolls were mostly made in home-based businesses, and making wax dolls was very hazardous–if a doll maker wasn’t seriously burned by the hot wax, he could have his lungs harmed by the sawdust used to stuff bodies, or, he could be poisoned by the lead used to color the wax!

Bodies of wax dolls were generally made of stuffed cloth, with wax limbs (as you can see, the genre that dolls fall into is determined by the material that their heads are made of–NOT from the materials used for the bodies). Wax dolls can have beautifully realistic heads, because wax can mimic skin much better than either wood or papier mâché. Poured wax dolls from mid-19th century England are mostly valued between $1000 to $2000; earlier dolls much higher. Some later wax dolls are stamped by the maker on the torso; such identification greatly enhances the value. Wax dolls were also made with plaster or papier mâché reinforcement in both England and Germany, and later examples are less costly to today’s collectors, often only a few hundred dollars.

In Part II of this series, we will turn our attention to China and Parian Dolls, French and German fashion dolls, French Bebes and the German Dolly-faced dolls.

Article and photos by Denise Van Patten
Above photos: 30″ all-original 1870 Greiner Papier Mache; wax over papier mache c. 1850.
Portions of this series first appeared in County Lines Magazine, March 1999.

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