ABOVE PHOTO: A variety of black vintage cloth dolls from the collection of Leeanne Simpson, Australia.
Among porcelain antique dolls, whimsical Kewpies, Barbie dolls and even paper dolls, cloth dolls in the image of African-Americans drew special attention among more than 1,200 collectors in New Orleans for the annual convention of the United Federation of Doll Clubs.
The oldest of the black dolls on display was sewn about 1850, said curator Joyce Stamps of Framingham, Mass., who put together the exhibit at the federation’s request.
Because cloth is fragile, most surviving black cloth dolls date from about 1870 — during Reconstruction — and on. But records indicate hundreds were sold at bazaars before the Civil War to raise money for the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, textile historian Roben Campbell said.
Interest in black cloth dolls from the Victorian era and early 20th century has grown in the past decade, she said.
That’s because of a 2007 exhibit of dolls made from 1870 to 1930, from the personal collection of antiques dealer Pat Hatch of Harvard, Mass., Stamps said. Campbell curated that exhibit, and Stamps said she and other members of the Black /Gold Doll Club of New England helped with it.
“That was kind of the jumping-off point,” she said.
Stamps’ exhibit at the convention ranged from antiques to contemporary dolls owned by Hatch, herself, and a half-dozen other collectors.
Some were topsy-turvy dolls dating from the turn of the last century. They have no legs but two heads, one white and one black; a two-sided skirt flips to show one or the other.
The story is that they were made by black women working for white families, and which head was shown would depend on the race of any adults in the room, said Stamps, who is African-American.
“The children, be they black or white, playing with them … it was like they really weren’t supposed to be playing with each other,” she said.
She created one of seven special exhibits at the convention this past week.
Others included dolls depicting Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II from childhood to her diamond jubilee, as well as her great-grandmother Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee; the artwork of Susan Beatrice Pearse, who often painted little girls playing with dolls; Louisiana history in dolls; and friendship dolls sent from Japan to the United States in 1927.
Campbell said that when she began work on the exhibit in 2005, she had to dig deep for information about black cloth dolls.
The first sold for The Liberator in the early 1840s were made by an African-American woman who taught sewing to young black children in Salem, Mass., where black and white women worked together in a women’s anti-slavery society, Campbell said.
As children, the author Louisa May Alcott and her sisters owned such a doll, most likely bought by their fervently abolitionist father, Bronson Alcott, said Campbell, who works at the Fruitlands Museum on the site of Bronson Alcott’s short-lived Transcendentalist commune.
Hatch had never even seen such a doll until 1973 and thought it was one of a kind, Campbell said. She said Hatch had collected about 150 by 2005, and sales of the earlier dolls are now more common.
Black cloth dolls from the 1870s to 1890s can bring from hundreds to thousands of dollars, with the deciding factor being whether several people want the same doll, said Stuart Holbrook, president of Theriault’s Antique Doll Auctions of Annapolis, Md. The auction house took in $2.5 million at a pair of auctions in New Orleans — $1.2 million for all 900 items from a toy museum in Davos, Switzerland, last Sunday, and $1.3 million for about 300 antique dolls auctioned Monday.
“One which seems wonderful may bring $300, and one which seems equally as wonderful brings $3,000 for no rhyme or reason,” he said.
For comparison, a brown-skinned bisque doll made in France about 1890 and elaborately costumed as an opera character sold for about $42,000 in New Orleans, he said.
The doll from about 1850 in Stamps’ display is fashioned as a boy. Clothes sewn as part of the body include a pair of knee-length pants. Back then, only a few brave women wore pants, and those bloomers were baggy, ankle-length and widely ridiculed.
Campbell said black cloth dolls differ from typical rag dolls in several ways. Most were made of new cloth, and the earliest ones tended to be firmly stuffed rather than floppy. Those made from about 1870-1890 tended to be more elegantly dressed and durable than the early 20th-century dolls, which were often more “squeezy” and huggable, she said.
Informative quilts, banners and five dolls shown in New Orleans came from the National Black Doll Museum, privately run by Debra Britt and her two sisters in Mansfield, Mass. The museum — one of two devoted to black dolls — owns about 5,000 and has 2,000 on display, Britt said.
Barbara Whiteman, who opened the Philadelphia Doll Museum in 1988, has said that before 1950, most dolls manufactured for black children had exaggerated, stereotypical features, or were white-featured dolls tinted brown. Mass-produced dolls with more realistic images of African-American children weren’t made until the 1950s.
Britt said the oldest dolls in her museum have no features at all and aren’t easily recognized as dolls. They are “wrap dolls” handed down in her family and made by enslaved children, possibly in the early 18th century. They were made of gourds and vines, and wrapped with cloth and twigs.
“The children would fill those dolls with stones to carry the fear that they had,” she said. “And they would hide this doll from the master.”