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Celluloid Dolls

Monday, July 20, 2009 @ 09:07 AM Karen Hood

Some of the most beautiful dolls ever made were manufactured around the turn of the 20th century from a newly invented material called celluloid. This material revolutionized the toy making industry, and today it is changing the way some people view doll collecting.

Until recently celluloid has been frowned upon by many purists who have an affinity toward dolls made of traditional materials like bisque, china, porcelain and composition. According to some doll experts, celluloid has little appeal to the “serious” collector because it is a material that has certain drawbacks; it fades, it cracks and it is flammable.

It’s true, celluloid is not as sturdy as other doll making materials, but that’s because it wasn’t meant to be. Early advertisements claim that celluloid was lightweight, unbreakable and waterproof. These were qualities that made it conducive to play rather than collecting, and while its drawbacks are valid concerns, today’s collector of the celluloid doll is putting it on display rather than storing it in a trunk or blanket chest.

The First Celluloid Dolls

In 1895 Frederich Bensinger, the owner of the Rhenish Gummi und Celluloidfabrik Company of Neckarau, Germany gave one of his engineers the task of creating a doll from celluloid. That man was Robert Zeller, and by 1897 he had successfully developed a method of blowing steam into tubes of celluloid that were placed in a doll shaped metal mold. The process was so successful the company went into full scale production. In 1899 the Rhenish firm registered their now famous turtle trademark and named their doll making division Schildkrot — the German word for turtle.

At first parents were skeptical about buying celluloid dolls for their children because it had a reputation for being dangerously flammable — which it was. Furthermore, at the time celluloid dolls were no less expensive than porcelain or bisque dolls, so consumers were hesitant to pay for something they knew little about. Eventually, however, its lightweight durability and realistic appearance won out and celluloid baby dolls became popular.

Celluloid Dolls in France

In France things were quite different. Celluloid had been widely used in the manufacture of ornamental hair combs and jewelry since the first European celluloid factory had been built in Stains, near St. Denis in 1875. But it wasn’t until after the turn of the 20th century that celluloid dolls and toys began to make their appearance.

The most famous of French manufacturers was Petitcollin, originally founded in Oyonnax in 1860 for the manufacture of combs. Petitcollin began to fabricate celluloid in 1898 and registered their trademark, the profile of an eagle head, in 1901. They began to fabricate celluloid dolls and toys in 1907, with the earliest advertisements appearing in 1909.

Petitcollin became well known for its boy doll, Petit Colin, which was introduced in 1924. The success of this baby doll was a catalyst for a whole cast of characters, so that by the mid-1930s Colette, Coline, Colinette and Parisette dolls joined the family and became just as popular as their older brother Colin.

Petitcollin also made a large number of small jointed standing dolls which were finished with mohair wigs and dressed as souvenirs in regional costume. The firm is still in business today but discontinued use of celluloid in 1957 when the material was replaced with a non-flammable substitute.

Societe Nobel Francaise was formed in 1927, registering their trademark, SNF in diamond in 1928. The firm absorbed the Convert company and used their molds to make a variety of animal toys, as well as beautiful fashion dolls ranging from 5 ½ inches to 10 inches, which were dressed in fancy costume and sold as souvenirs. The most interesting of SNF baby dolls are toddlers who have mohair wigs and glass eye mechanisms that allow the eyes to open and close as well as shift side to side.

Celluloid Dolls in Japan

Most Japanese celluloid doll makers focused on mass producing small, inexpensive carnival- type dolls, so it isn‘t very often that collectors find good quality sturdy examples of babies or toddlers. There were a few firms, however, that made a limited quantity, and although these cannot compare with the high quality of French and German baby dolls from the same period, they do deserve to be recognized.

Sekiguchi was one of the largest and most prolific manufacturers of celluloid toys in Japan. The company was founded in 1918 by Moto and Tomokichi Sekiguchi for the sole purpose of manufacturing and exporting dolls to the United States. Their most recognized creation is a variation of the Kewpie, which they called Cupid. Later, during the 1920s, the naked carnival type Boopie doll became popular. Often these were decorated with brightly colored feathers or crepe paper costumes and exported in great number to the United States where they sold for mere pennies.

On occasion, sturdy Japanese toddler or baby dolls can be found with the trademarks of Sekiguchi (a three lobed flower) the Royal Company, Ltd. (a fleur-de-lis) and Sato Sankichi (SS inside rhombus). Often these are made in the likeness of Baby John, a doll which became so popular it was produced in a variety of sizes by a number of different manufacturers.

Celluloid Dolls in the United States

In America, where celluloid was invented in 1869, the doll and toy industry had a slow beginning. An assignor to the Celluloid Novelty Company patented several designs for dolls during the 1880s, but to date no examples have been found that support any evidence of production. It appears, rather, that the Germans dominated the toy market in the United States up until the onset of World War I, when trade ceased. It was then, out of opportunity and necessity, that America entered the celluloid toy making industry.

In 1914 the Viscoloid Company of Leominster, Massachusetts (founded in 1901) hired a German artist named Paul Kramme, who began to design toy molds for the firm. Viscoloid became prolific in their manufacture of small figural dolls and toys up until after DuPont bought the company in 1925. Although not as common, Viscoloid also produced a limited number of jointed baby dolls measuring between 10 inches and 16 ½ inches. Today these may be found trademarked with the words Made In USA, and sometimes accompanied by an intertwined VCO logo or a number.

Little is known of the Marks Brothers Company, of Boston, but according to Coleman’s Encyclopedia of Dolls, a firm named Marks & Knoring Company, was producing dolls with celluloid faces between 1915 and 1917. The Marks Brothers Company made its appearance in the sales catalogues beginning in 1918 until the mid-1920s. Marks Brothers’ socket and shoulder plate heads in celluloid can be found, on occasion, bearing the shield trademark of the firm or the words, Marks Bros. Boston.

The Parsons-Jackson Company, of Cleveland, Ohio (originally a celluloid cuff and collar manufacturer) patented a unique baby doll in 1914 out of their brand of celluloid called Biskoline. Today these dolls, which bear a trademark of a standing stork and the words Parsons-Jackson Co. Cleveland, OHIO, U.S.A. on the back, can be found for between $75-$175 depending on condition.

Excerpts from “Celluloid Dolls — European, Japanese and American” by Julie Pelletier Robinson
Source: Celluloid Forever

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