Day with the dolls

Dolls have a special place at the Museum of Childhood.

Perhaps our most famous room is the doll gallery, containing hundreds of little figures, gathered in groups by material (wood, bisque, cloth…) or theme (military, fashion, character…)

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Dolls can be a bit overwhelming – their history is very long, their famous makers are numerous and their cultural meanings are wide and densely woven.

So I invited the best people I knew to accompany me through our collection –  the Doll Club of Great Britain. Carol, Catherine and Janet from the Club came to Edinburgh, and we spent a wonderful day going through boxes in store and picking favourites on display, sharing knowledge and passions as we went.

To collectors, dolls have many layers of interest. They open up worlds of history, from tales of fashion and technology to stories of social customs and the status of women. Dolls are made by artists and machines, and show us craft and creativity. They also provide escapism, a link to childhood memories and their collecting provides a way to meet and share with like-minded friends.

It was a pleasure to spend a day in the company of dolls. Here are some of the highlights:

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Here the experts get to grips with a tiny wooden Grodnertal doll. These familiar wooden peg dolls were made in their thousands in the 1800s, and were usually sold naked, to be dressed by the children who owned them.

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This doll’s face is made of wax, modelled over a papier mache skull. These layers tend to shrink at different rates, meaning the pretty faces quickly get cracked, leading these dolls to have the nickname ‘Mad Alice’. Struck a chord with me.

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This beautiful wax-headed doll from the 1840s has characteristic inward-facing feet and gloves made of kid leather. The soft colours of her dress and its many delicate layers made us all gasp when we opened her box! Though Carol thought she could do with a bit of rouge.

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I love the dignified pose of this wax-faced dolls’ house doll in her gold beaded bodice. The style and materials of this little lady suggests she is much older than we originally thought – perhaps even early 1700s. She’s kept out of trouble for centuries, hiding her red shoes under her skirts.

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I had never seen this type of doll before. Called ‘bristle’ or ‘piano’ dolls, these tiny characters were lined up on top of the piano, and would dance when the keys were hit. Their featherlight little legs hang underneath delicately painted bodies, propped up on four stiff bristles (boar bristles, usually). I think I would have been more conscientious with my piano practice if I’d had a jigging audience!

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The well-ruffled doll standing for inspection is a teenage Jumeau. These beautiful dolls were dressed in the finest couture and used to sell the latest fashions, rather than to play with. Along with rivals Bru, the Jumeau doll company helped shape the look of baby and child dolls. Their strong brows, huge glass eyes and elaborate costumes epitomise the high-end dolls of the nineteenth century.

A good doll – to these collectors at least – is well preserved, with original clothes and a signature or mark. But most importantly, she’ll have a certain charm you can’t quite put your finger on,  a certain je ne sais quoi.

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