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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