A Short History of Paper dolls

Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here.  I actually had a completely different post in mind for you today, and had it half written, but other obligations and procrastination got the better of me. I did some research earlier in the week but didn’t get started drafting the post until this afternoon and got to feeling, shall we say, a bit under the weather before I could complete it. So instead I’m reviving a older post on a fun topic.  And by way of apology I’ll be giving away multiple copies of my books (I haven’t quite decided how many yet).

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 used 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, the S&J Fuller Company of London produced the first commercially popular paper doll.  Named ‘Little Fanny’, the two-dimensional doll was printed in a 15 page book that boasted seven distinct figures.  In addition to the various 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 Home 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 McCall’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 at the time of this posting.

I admit, despite the popularity today of all the electronic gizmos, I have fond memories of the hours of creative play my sister and I had with paper dolls and fashion dolls exercising our imaginations to bring the toys to life.

So what about you?  Did you play with paper dolls as a child or is there a child in your life who did?  Do you have a particular memory you’d like to share?

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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.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

58 thoughts on “A Short History of Paper dolls”

  1. I loved paper dolls as a child, and in my trunk I still have some that I played with. I wore them out, so my parents always got new ones for me. And if they were found in magazines, I loved cutting them out. With my imagination, I made beds using kleenex, and I believe some of my paper dolls are still in their beds. I loved the ones that you rubbed the clothes on the doll to make them stick.
    My trunk is in storage, but now I want to see what I still have.

    • Oh what a fun blog post and such a great collection! The one of Trixie Belden caught my eye because I was a big fan of the books when I was younger but I never knew she was featured in paper doll form. I would have absolutely jumped on getting them if I had known.

  2. I loved paper dolls when I was little. One memory I have is playing with them outside with my grandmother and the wind started blowing and some started to blow away. My grandmother was scrambling trying to save them for me.

      • It made me smile too. I had completely forgotten about that memory until you mentioned paper dolls. Another memory that came back was her letting me drink ginger ale all the time. I think it was because I was sick a lot and she knew to let me drink it so my tummy stayed settled down.

        • Another fun memory! For me when I had an upset tummy, my mom always gave me coca cola. And she often made it herself with a kind of extract or syrup she kept on hand. I’m not even sure you can get it any more.

  3. I had two sets of paper dolls. I loved them and played with them carefully. They each came in a box and the clothes were supposed to stick with a bit of static.

    (Winterthur Museum, Garden &Library, in Delaware, is one of the du Pont estates and home to an amazing collection of American fine art and decorative objects. It also has a Point-to-Point Steeplechase each year. Each room is decorated and Christmas is amazing there. The gardens are exquisite. If you find yourself in the Brandywine River Valley, it’s a must-see. Not too far from Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.)

    • Oh wow Denise, thanks for the info – it sounds like an amazing place. I need to put this on my wish list of places to visit when I start traveling again.

  4. I enjoyed paper dolls as a child. Mostly cutting up a catalog and making my own, as money was in short supply for my family.

  5. Yes, I loved playing with paper dolls for hours on end. Our local five and dime store would sell sewing pattern books for a small fee and I would go home and happily cut out the paper dolls in their latest fashions. Thanks for sharing the history of these dolls.

    • Oh Julie I remember both five and dimes and sewing pattern books. My mom sewed all our clothes back in the day and it was fun pouring over those pattern catalogs.

  6. Yes my sister and I both played with paper dolls. I can remember playing with them to their poor head got bent. We would play with them for hours. Spend a long time cutting them out and then playing with them. You could spend hours just changing their clothes because that had so many different things to each doll. I don’t think any of mine survive my childhood but my Barbie’s did.

    • Hi Quilt Lady. Oh the end-of-the-world disaster those bent heads were to us kids! Mom tried to repair them with popsicle sticks taped to the back but they were never really the same :).

  7. I loved playing paper dolls with my two sisters. I remember fighting over which of one of us would get to cut out Betsy McCall. I had a Dinah Shore and her family.
    My mother was quite an artist. We would beg her to make clothes for our paper dolls. They were so much prettier than the ones that came with the dolls ( or we just wore them out) and we got to color them. I wish I had still them.
    Thanks for tugging at our memories. And thanks for the history lesson.

    • Hi Paula. What great memories! And how cool that your mom made clothes for your dolls. I bet y’all had a blast coloring them and putting your own stamp on them. My mom however was a great seamstress and made a lot of Barbie doll clothes for us – my sister and I had VERY well dressed Barbies 🙂

  8. Welcome today. Thanks for sharing such an interesting post. Oh I loved paper dolls. Mom showed me how to outline the clothes on a separate piece of paper so I could color in my own and have a large wardrobe of paper doll clothes. My paper doll was “Twiggy” Mom wouldn’t let me have Barbie. My friends and I had so much fun with paper dolls. We would take furniture, etc.. from other dolls and use our paper dolls, creating a whole world for them. My sister would not play with dolls. Shrug. Her loss. LOL Our daughter played with paper dolls for a real short time. Another little lady not interested in dolls. She preferred boy stuff. quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

    • How fun Lori! I never made furniture for my paper dolls but my sister and I made all kinds of furnishings for our Barbies with cardboard and fabric scraps. One time, a neighbor who was an upholsterer gave us a whole bunch of fabric samples, each about the size of a sheet of notebook paper and we thought we’d hit the jackpot – oh the fun we had 🙂

  9. I played with paper dolls as a girl. My kids love playing with them. I wish I could find some decent ones for them to play with. What’s out there anymore is not good. Not like there used to.

    • Hello Kimberly. It’s so nice that you were able to pass on your love of paper dolls to your own kids. If you’re looking for some good paper dolls, do an online search – there are some vintage patterns out there that are not too unreasonably priced.

  10. I loved playing with paper dolls. I don’t have mine anymore but I do have a set of my aunt’s either from the 1940s or early 50s.

  11. I grew up playing with paper dolls. And as a young girl I was good at drawing and art work so I made my own clothes and sometimes dolls to play with. I think as a result I grew up to design and make many of my own clothes.

    • Oh how cool to have such a talent! I made a lot of my clothes back before I had little ones to chase after, but I always used patterns, never even attempted to design my own.

  12. I do remember having a book of paper dolls as a kid… but having younger sisters, they did not last long.

  13. I loved playing with paper dolls when I was a child! <3 We were 6 kiddos growing up , I have 3 older brother, then there is me and then I have 2 younger sisters. Well every year for our birthdays my mom would take us to a bakery and let us choose the cake we wanted and then we would go get some ice cream to go with the cake. One year on my birthday my mom got me a paper doll along with some other gifts and the paper dolls name was Cynthia, I loved that paper doll , I think my mom loved the name Cynthia also because when my sister that is one year younger than I was pregnant with her 2nd baby my mom had told my sister that if the baby was a girl that she could name her Cynthia, well her baby was a girl but my sister didn’t name her Cynthia, so I then told my mom that I would name my first baby if it was girl Cynthia, well my first baby was a girl and I did name her Cynthia . You know I can still picture my paper doll whose name was Cynthia, that was her name , and I really loved that paper doll. I always loved getting paper dolls, I loved dressing them and playing with them. I always used to get paper dolls for my daughter when she was growing up, they also had the magnetic paper dolls, there is nothing like the old fashioned paper dolls that’s for sure. When I was young I also used to make my own paper dolls and their outfits, so much fun. I loved this post , Thank you so much for sharing all this info. Have a Great week and stay safe.

  14. I played with paper dolls as a child. Sometimes I cut figures out of an old catalog, sometimes I had a new book of paper dolls… oh what fun!!!

  15. I had a box of paper dolls – Santa and his village, a collection of babies and toddlers, brides and grooms, and others. Some of them were my mother’s as well. My mother would help me name them (first and middle)

  16. I love paper dolls when I was a child and spent many hours playing with them. I still had my box of them stashed away when I graduated from college. Sadly, for some reason one of three small boxes of my things were thrown out while I was overseas, and the paper dolls were in that box. I had maybe 40 or more dolls and their clothes. I did have a Bear family of paper dolls, but not the ones printed the turn of the century. I am old, but not that old. My dolls were from the 50’s and early 60’s. I remember processes and princes, cowboy & cowgirls & Indians, regular families, Betsy McCall, maybe a Kewpie doll, and a bride or two. I did buy a few paper doll books several years ago but haven’t cut them out. They were for my interest in historical costumes. I have a Civil War era book and a Regency Era book of dolls among others. Still enjoyable to look at if not played with.

    Thank you for the bit of nostalgia. I am still sad my collection is gone. They were an important part of my childhood. Now I would really like to be able to look at them again. I hope you get caught up on “things” and have a good week.

    • Oh Patricia, how terrible. I feel your pain. While my paper dolls bit the dust from wear and tear, when I was away at college my entire collection of comic books disappeared and I was absolutely heartbroken over it.

  17. No, I never played with paper dolls. I don’t think that I knew about them. I did play with Barbie dolls.

  18. Yes I played with paper dolls and barbies too – I just last year found my Barbie case in the attic off of my bedroom at my dad’s house while cleaning! Such fond memories!

  19. Interesting article! I was born in 1957 so I played with paper dolls! I remember the ‘tabs’ and trying to get the clothes to stay on them!

  20. I definitely did!! In fact I was looking around for my daughter to have paper dolls to play with as a present, but unfortunately I couldn’t find any!! When I told her that I had been wanting to give her some, she looked at me like I was crazy!! My favorite paper dolls were from She-Ra and Barbie!!

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