Existing since the dawn of time, dolls are among the oldest man-made objects. Cherished generation after generation, their looks and purposes have changed over the centuries. Their evolution has always been closely linked to fashion as well as innovation and social change. Here is a global overview of their story from Ancient Time to the 21st century. The history of dolls in a nutshell.
The making of dolls - painting from Angelo Courten, end of the 19th century
THE VERY FIRST DOLLS
Dolls are said to have existed as early as the Paleolithic Era (roughly 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 B.C.). The eldest one, discovered in Siberia in 2017, had a head carved from soapstone and a body made of organic materials which have since then decomposed. It is believed to be over 4,500 years old.
Wooden paddle dolls from Ancient Egypt also appeared to be popular.
Archaeologists have also confirmed that dolls were used in Ancient Greece and Rome. Made of a great diversity of natural materials such as clay, wood, wax, bone, ivory, jade stone, several were found in graves and in particular children’s tombs. Most were rather rudimentary yet some could be considered as work of art : articulated and delicately painted.
Their purpose seems to have been different according to the culture and civilization. It is supposed that they were either used as children’s toys or as symbols for rituals. Some were even believed to hold magical powers.
For example Greek brides would offer their dolls to the Gods before getting married. Ancient Japanese dolls were used during religious ceremonies and considered as a source of protection.
African dolls were used as a mean of education and entertainment. Some like the Voodoo dolls were attributed super natural powers.
The border between dolls as a toy and ritual symbols is often hard to trace.
During the Middle Ages, little is known of doll usage. Mainly made of rags by mothers at home, they did not resist the trial of time. It is only in the 16th century that a proper doll production business started to emerge. In Paris, the craftsmen making and selling dolls upon fairs were named “bimbelotiers”.
During the 17th century, French dolls were made of wood and paper mâché (mashed paper and sometimes bits of textile all bound together with an adhesive such as glue or starch). England, slightly ahead, was already using wax. In the 18th century, dolls met a big success and innovation in the production process continued.
During the first half of the 19th century, doll heads were made of very delicate china, beautiful but very easily breakable. Later on, biscuit porcelain also know as bisque was used to give them a human skin like shade. Very popular in Europe and in particular in France and Germany, these antique dolls are deeply sought after by collectors.
Until 1869, dolls bodies were made of sewn fabric and filled with bran. The invention of celluloid was a real revolution, much cheaper and less fragile than porcelain, it was well suited to children. Since 1945, most dolls are now made of plastic or synthetic materials.
Half way between fashion dolls and engraving, paper dolls were launched by the English in the 1970’s. Cheaper to produced, much smaller and lighter, they could easily be sent abroad. However they were also very fragile. Empresses, actresses and mothers were most often used as models for these dolls and later on children.
The Shirley Temple doll, star child of the 1930’s, had a huge success.
NEW BODY SHAPES AND FEATURE
Not only did the materials change over the decades, but the body shapes too. In Ancient Greece, dolls with articulated limbs already existed but these became more and more sophisticated as time went by.
In 1858, Mlle Rohmer created dolls with a head that could turn sideways. Then came dolls with eyelids that could be closed and opened. The date of creation of glass eyes remains unknown, however we do know that doll eyes were mostly brown until Queen Victoria launched the fashion of blue eyes. And over the last decades dolls which could speak, drink and even give birth were created…
Until the 19th century dolls imitated adults more than babies and were mainly women. The company Jumeau were among the first to create new born dolls and even received medals at the universal exhibitions during the Second Empire.
Then, in 1959 was born the famous Barbie doll created by Mattel. Grown-up, she was designed as a symbol of the independent women as a source of inspiration for little girls to reflect upon.
The history of dolls would not be complete without mentioning fashion dolls which appeared in the 16th century. Designed for adults, they were sent to the royal courts of Europe to present the latest fashion trends. Philippe IV sent a doll with a full wardrobe to his daughter Isabelle, future queen of England as a gift. Henri IV did the same for his wife Marie de Médicis to allow her to become familiar with French fashion.
Despite the birth of fashion magazines and engravings, fashion dolls did not disappear. In 1924 at “L’exposition des Dames d’aujourd’hui” ( The exhibit of Today’s women), 25 standing dolls presented the evolution of fashion since 1900.
Among the most exquisite fashion dolls were of course the Parisian dolls. Ambassadors of French style and elegance, they were dressed by the most famous fashion houses of the time. Entire wardrobes were made with stunning realism. Miniature pearl earrings, velvet purses, delicate shoes and even corsets were created for dolls. Their luxurious wardrobes could be reproduced thanks to patterns sold in specific magazines.
To this day, dolls continue to delight us. Kept for their beauty, historical heritage, financial value or by nostalgia, the number of adult doll collectors is thriving.
Among the most famous is the Sasha doll, created by Sasha Morgenthaler and produced in England then Germany in the late 1960s.
To extend the enchantment of doll collections, Charlotte sy Dimby has designed a highly limited edition of unique collector miniature smocked dresses.
Each doll outfit comes with a delicate frilled leg bloomer and a little purse to use for storage or travelling.
To learn more on the history of dolls we invite you to read the following article: