Paper Dolls


Once again I was trying to come up with some activity or thing the children in my current WIP could use to amuse themselves.  One idea I thought of was paper dolls.  But how common were they in 1894?  So off I went to do some research.  And here is a summary of what I found.

First of all, identifying the date of the appearance of the first paper dolls depends on your definition of what a paper doll is.  As early as AD 900 the Japanese were using paper figurines in purification ceremonies.  In the thirteenth century the Chinese use large stick-mounted figures in their puppet shows.  But most historians agree that paper dolls as we currently think of them originated in the late eighteenth century when French dressmakers employed them as a way to illustrate the latest fashions to their customers.  Today you can find a rare set of  hand painted figures from the 1780s housed in the Winerhur Museum in Delaware.

In Europe, many of the early sets of paper dolls depicted actors and actresses of the stage and there were separately crafted toy stages to go with them.

In Pioneer America, however, paper was a prized resource and any child lucky enough to get paper dolls treasured them greatly.  They were carefully pressed between the pages of books or placed in a sturdy box.

In 1810, S&J Fuller Company of London produced the first commercially popular paper doll.  Named ‘Little Fanny’, the doll was printed in a 15 page book that boasted seven figures.  In addition to the various doll poses and outfits, the book included a moral tale for the edification of the children to whom it was presented.  Two years later, J. Belcher of America printed a similar doll with accompanying moral tale, this one named Little Henry.   Within ten years paper dolls were a popular toy for children in both America and Europe.

In the early days, basic paper dolls were created in various states of dress.  Some came modestly dressed with permanently painted on clothing, while others were attired only in undergarments.  Also, the early versions were missing the tabs for affixing the clothing that are common place today.  Before these came along,  children carefully applied tiny drops of sealing wax to the paper ‘clothes’ as a temporary glue.

Before chroma-lithography came into common usage, paper dolls were colored by hand.  Civil War widows often supplemented depleted incomes by embellishing the printed dolls .  However, even after the advent of lithography, some of the manufacturers continued to print in black and white for children to color themselves.

In 1856, Anson Randolph published the book Paper Dolls and How to Make Them, A Book for Little Girls.  Inside the pages were illustrations of dolls and clothing to cut out and play with.  According to The New York Evangelist   Paper Dolls and How to Make Them, is a book of a thousand for little girls. It contains instructions how to make those ingenious and beautiful little paper dolls, clothed with every variety of costume, and every style of appearance, which are sometimes sold at the shops. The instructions are so plain, and the plates giving illus­trations so numerous, that every little girl can learn the art, and in learning it, will have a perpetual field for the exercise of taste and ingenuity. The study is exceed­ingly attractive, and will furnish means of enjoyment to the nursery and fireside that may well alternate with books and plays. The author has displayed great tact in giving the descriptions, and a genial loving desire to promote the happiness of children — a trait which we place among the highest virtues, in anybody. As there is nothing of the kind in market, and opens a bound­less field of occupation and enjoyment, the little book must become a favorite.”

(Ah-ha – this is something I can use in my book!)

In 1859 Godey’s Lady’s Book became the first magazine to include a paper doll in its pages.  Other magazines quickly followed suit, including Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and Women’s pd-mccallHome Companion.  These dolls carried such names as Lettie Lane, Polly Pratt, and the famous Kewpie Dolls, and often included figures comprising full families, including servants and pets.   The most popular of these ‘magazine dolls’ came along in 1951 from MacCall’s Magazine – Betsy McCall.

As paper dolls grew in popularity, manufacturers of household goods saw them as a great medium to promote their products.  Some of the products advertised include Pillsbury flour, Singer sewing machines, Hood’s Sarsaparilla, Clark threads and Lyon’s coffee.  These dolls were produced either as die cut items or as printed cards to cut out.  They were produced in large quantities and many examples can still be found today.  J&P Coats company (now Coats and Clark) took this a step farther when they came up with a unique take on the paper doll.  There were five different dolls available to purchasers of Spool and Crochet Cotton.  The unique feature of these dolls were that they had mechanical heads.  The head piece was separate from the body and was actually constructed in a wheel formation that contained three heads painted on both sides, so that the doll could be viewed with any one of six expressions, and even some slight variations on hairstyles.  This head was attached to the body of the doll at the neck with an eyelet,  The clothing for these ‘mechanical paper dolls’ were constructed with a fold and slipped over the head in the same fashion as a ‘real’ dress.


Another group that jumped on the paper doll band wagon were newspapers.  In the 1890s the Boston Herald printed two paper dolls, a blonde and a brunette along with instructions for ordering additional dolls.  They kept the interest alive by printing clothing for the dolls in subsequent issues.  The Boston Globe, not to be outdone, began printing their own series of dolls and clothing.  After the turn of the century a Teddy Bear paper doll series made an appearance in the paper as well.  By 1916 several other papers had begun following suit.  During the Great Depression, newspaper produced paper dolls enjoyed a huge comeback.  Many of the characters were pulled directly from the comic papers, characters such as Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner, the Katzenjammer Kids and Brenda Starr.

The 1940s and 1950s was the advent of America’s romanticized love of the Wild West and this was reflected in paper dolls as well.  Many sets of paper dolls were crafted after characters from western movies and television shows, and of the imagined life at a dude ranch.

By the early 1960s, Barbie had appeared on the paper doll scene and quickly became the most popular paper doll among American children of all time, a title she still holds today.

So what about you?  Did you play with paper dolls as a child?  Do you have a particular set you remember fondly?

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
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29 thoughts on “Paper Dolls”

  1. Hi Winnie, Paper dolls always make me think of Colorforms. Remember those? They were made of plastic, so the pieces could be peeled and reused to make pictures. I loved Colorforms. I never really played with paperdolls, didn’t play with dolls much at all. I was a “book” girl. Always reading!

    I have a little girl in my October 2010 LIH and had to do some research re: children’s books. It’s funny how things change yet stay the same. Little girls, then and now, still like the same things.

  2. Hi there!
    I had some paper dolls growing up. They used to frustrated me beyond anything trying to get their little paper outfits to stay on! Ugh! Those little tabs were supposed to fold over and they just never worked right. My paper doll would be walking down the street minding her own business then eeeek! Her clothes would just fall right off!!! 😀

    In the Little House books Laura talked about how they couldn’t afford “real” paper dolls so Ma cut out her own from heavy paper and then the girls made clothes out of scraps of wallpaper, newspaper and just about anything else that would work. Go Ma! Creative for sure.

  3. Betsy McCall, I LOVED HER WINNIE! My mom must have had a subscription to the magazine, which is a wonder because we had NO MONEY when I was a kid.

    I remember cutting Betsy and her clothes out so carefully. And I remember botching it and taping the tabs back on. and we’d spend real time playing with her. I just loved putting those clothes on her. Amazing the simple pleasure of it.

  4. Vistoria – Colorforms! I haven’t thought about those in years. My sister and I thought they were soooo cool when we got our first set and would play with them for hours

  5. Hi, Winnie. Another fun post. I love researching the toys children played with in the 1800s. It’s amazing how pleased they were with the simplest offerings.

    I remember playing with paper dolls a time or two as a child. I loved picking out the clothes. Of course, my brother just liked to laugh at the poor paper girls in their underwear. Boys!

  6. Stephanie – LOL on the clothes falling off. I had the same problem. And I may just have the characters in my book make their own clothes for some of their paper dolls as well 🙂

  7. Mary – I have fond memories of Betsy McCall as well. I used to get so excited when mom would get a magazine that had one of these figures in them. And I still remember the first time she let me cut them out myself – quite a ‘grown up’ moment for me.

  8. hi Winnie, fantastic post! Oh, yes, I had paper dolls. The Betsy McCalls every month (My gramma got that magazine.) My mom said Gram was a master at making paper dolls from greeting cards.

    I also have a repro book of “Letty Lane” and the wedding, all clothes from a typical 1890’s wedding, for all family members. I even got two books so I could cut one up.

    And oh yes, colorforms. Wow, what a memory.

    In an educational catalog recently I found “magnetic” paper dolls so I am getting the little boy one for my grandson (turning 3). It had firefighters, cowboys etc.

    Thank you, Winnie. Oh how fun this all is to think about!

  9. Karen – LOL about your brother’s teasing, such a typical boy reaction.

    Tanya – Glad you enjoyed the post. Cool about your ‘Letty Lane’ set. I’ve been thinking that repoductions of older sets might be a good research tool to help me visualize the clothing styles of bygone eras

  10. Hi Winnie,

    Yes I remember playing with paper dolls. I also remember that I would get upset because they would not stand or their clothes would not stay on

    I am glad you brought this subject up it took me back to when I was a kid

    Walk in harmony,

  11. Melinda – Hi! Thanks for dropping by. Ah – getting them to stand up. I was so glad when the dolls with the little circular plastic stands came out – made life so much easier.

  12. My love of make-believe and of making up characters and situations started with paper dolls. My earliest was a set I’m still looking for, and they are expensive to buy now. They were a family of chubby children by Whitman called Baby Grows Up (I think), and I loved them. I cut Betsy McCall from my Grandma St.John’s magazines, too.

    As I got a little older, my couple were Pat Boone and Annette Funicello. LOL Don’t know how I came by those two, but they were my faves and married and had little paper children. My bride and groom paperdolls were only walk-ons and secondary characters. Apparently I’ve never been a big wedding/bride fan and am still not.

    My cousin, Linda, and I used to cut furniture and babies from the Sears catalogs her dad brought us home from work, and we created mazes of rooms and entire households. We each had dozens of babies and children, and took up an entire room wherever we played.

    When we got a little older–mind you we played this until we graduated to Barbie and Ken–we were probably eleven and that lasted an embarrassingly long time–we gave each other silver scissors charms as a momento of our times together. I still have mine on my charm bracelet, and every time I look at it, I’m carried back to a wonderful time of make-believe.

    I often check out paperdolls on ebay and admittedly have bought a few vintage sets.

    LOVED your post on the history. Thanks, Winnie.

  13. Cheryl – what a marvelous post on your own love-affair with paper dolls. My sister and I never were much into furnishings (though that sounds likeit could have added even more to our fun), but we did use large squares of cloth to delineate ‘rooms’ for our dolls.

  14. Winnie, I played paper dolls when I was growing up in the 50’s. They were really the big thing back then. My sister and I spent hours upon hours playing with our dolls. We made up entire stories to go with our paper dolls. They had very involved lives. LOL I think I became a writer because of those paper dolls. I certainly learned how to tell a good story. Ah, those innocent times. Kids today wouldn’t play with them one second. I think a lot of imagination skills have been lost to technology.

  15. I too loved playing with paper dolls. The sad thing was when they were bent too many times and the little tabs would fall apart lol.

  16. Linda – Yes, building stories around the dolls and giving them lives and worlds to populate was a huge part of the fun. And was a good training ground for those of us who became writers.

  17. Jeanne – Ah yes, the broken tabs – required Dr. Mom’s careful skill with scotch tape and glue

    Estella – I never had the movie star versions – mine leaned more to generic fashion dolls and fesh faced children

  18. What a wonderful post. I trully loved my paperdolls and had literally a hundred. My father managed a lumberyard and gave me the little chest of drawers that sandpaper came in for storage. I remember the Kewpies and Betsy MaCall. I loved my Shirley Temple dolls and Roy and Dale. I wish that I still owned these dolls but being the oldest of five girls mine were passed down and when my younger sibling graduated to Barbie’s my paper dolls dissapeared.
    I used a bobbie pin to keep my dolls dressed and a lot of times I just cut off the little tabs. My but this has been a fun trip down memory lane. Thanks

  19. Connie – Hi! So glad you enjoyed the post. Sounds like you had an amazing collection. And I hear you about passing down your things to younger siblings – I was the oldest of 5.

  20. I can see many of us followed the same path. I grew up n the 50’s and loved my paper dolls. Connie, I used bobbie pins to hold the clothes on. I had close to 100 and was still collecting them in high school. When I went overseas after college, my parents threw them all out. I was really hurt when I came back and found out. I didn’t play with them anymore, but it was a nice collection.
    What a great walk down memory lane.

  21. Patricia – oh that’s heartbreaking about losing your collection. Something similar happened to me, only with my comic book collection. I had a huge stack – which included some really great issues – that were given away while I was away at college. Not much you can do but grit your teeth and smile through it.

  22. Hi Everyone, Great to read about memories with paper dolls. I loved Tillie the Toiler from the comics and used the dolls as models for drawing my own fashions. As an adult, I discovered a group of collectors and artists still interested in paper dolls. We have a convention every year in a different city. Next time=Kansas City.
    There are Yahoo Groups for paper doll collectors and many web sites by artists. A good place to check out new artists work.

  23. I still have my Barbie wedding set of paper dolls complete with flower girl and outfits for everyone. I think I got the set sometime before 1974…

  24. Great article. I have seen others and notice this one is a little different.

    I collected paper dolls for about 15 years and got introduced to the “Cut It Out” paper doll club in Colorado & was a member for about 15-16 years. I got over being so shy and I learned a lot about paper dolls and had more to learn when I decided I was getting older and had no one I could leave my paper doll collection to who would take care of it. They would just ruin it or sell it, so I decided to sell my collection myself. I actually enjoy doing that because I can relax and see my collection one paper doll at a time thinking “Wow, I do have one of those!” and “I forgot about these.” and so many I didn’t take time to look at before putting them away. I have a good feeling that the people who are buying them are people who will enjoy them and collect them like I have. Plus the memories of people I have met on ebay when I was buying most of my paper dolls and am still friends with some of them and met several plus some artists at conventions… all because of my paper dolls. I am also acquainted with Sylvia Kleindinst from paperdollnews group who posted on here. Hi Sylvia! I still have my website up so other people can know where to find paper dolls.

    MaryB (paprcutn)

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