Since the beginning of civilization, man has made images of himself from objects from his environment, either as drawing on cave walls or as figurines made of wood or clay. These dolls or idols were used as a religious or magical status. Today, dolls are defined as a three dimension figure representing a human being. Added to this definition, is that a doll is a play toy for children.
Dolls have been found throughout the world from the sarcophagi of Ancient Egypt, to the Catacombs in Rome to Native American graves of North America. Dolls tells a story about their past. That is why “the world of doll collecting” provides a treasure of information and holds such interest and joy to all peoples.
In Africa, from Ashanti to Zulu, image sculptures called “ancestor figures” are traditional and religious. These wood carved images represent deceased loved ones. The dolls are used to thank the gods for good health, wealth and a rich harvest. Ancestor’s images permeate an African’s day-to-day existence because of strong powers. There is a doll for each cycle of life-birth, initiation, marriage, and death.
With the rise of the German doll industry in the 19th century, black dolls found their way from the marketplace and into the home of the wealthy. The early black dolls from Germany were crudely made from papier-mâché, hand painted with pupiless eyes, glued-on wig or molded hair and some with molded shoes. The doll bodies were stuffed with saw dust or straw. Known as the “Golden Age of Doll Manufacturing,” from 1880 to 1930, the Germans made china, porcelain and bisque head dolls as well as celluloid. Black dolls were painted or had the color fired in during the second firing process. Of the leading German doll manufacturers, notably three manufacturers led in the production of black dolls: Simon & Halbig, Armand Marseille, and Heubach Koppelsdorf.
Although the Germans were the leading doll manufacturers, the French made more black dolls. Both doll makers Emile Jumeau and Casimir Bru were producing black bisque dolls commercially as early as 1880 and some came with the fired in black color. These luxury French bebes were produced with shades of coloring which gave more realistic tones. The majority of black Bruns and Juneau’s are found in the United States.
In 1895, the Golliwogg appears as a black character doll in Florence Upton children’s best seller, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls. The series of books featured the mishaps of the dolls. The Golliwogg was the delight of most English children.
In America, handmade and hand crafted dolls were not only popular because Americans could not afford the expensive porcelain dolls imported from Europe. Old cloth was used over and over to make faceless or embroider face cloth dolls called “Rag dolls”. The Native American taught settlers to plant corn and to make corn husk dolls. Other dolls made during the early 1900’s were nut dolls, bone dolls and tobacco dolls. These dolls are considered “American Folk Dolls”. Many of the black dolls made during this period portrayed stereotypical images of black people. Many black parents would not give these dolls to their children; instead they made dolls for them.
Early black dolls were made from the same composition mold as while dolls and painted black or brown. After the First World War, the use of unbreakable material such as rubber and celluloid was used to make dolls. As for the rubber dolls, they could be bathed, fed, and diaper changed without damage to the doll. The most popular black rubber doll was “Amosandra” produced by CBS Broadcasting Radio Co. Amosandra was the daughter of Amos from the Amos and Andy Show. Also some of the famous Kewpies dolls were made of celluloid material; some of the black Kewpies were called “hottentot”.
Although, in the 40’s there was an increase of black dolls on the American market, but it was not until the late 50’s that black dolls had ethnic features. The “Sara Lee” doll was designed from the composite pictures of black children. “Sara Lee” was considered the first “Anthropologically correct” black doll.
Since the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, many independent black doll manufacturing companies produced black dolls such as Shindana Doll Co., Keisa Dolls Inc., Whitney Doll Inc., Golden Ribbon Inc., and Olmec Inc.
A noted African American doll artist was I. Roberta Bell (1904-1992), an educator. Ms. Bell was the first black to become a member of the National Institute of American Doll Artist. She created a Heritage series of porcelain dolls representing famous and historical African Americans.
The Philadelphia Doll Museum continues to preserve and research black dolls as artifacts of history. More than play toys, these dolls symbolize the struggle for freedom and human dignity. The growth and legacy of black dolls will increase as both American and International doll artists continue to design and create wonderful black dolls.