Beautiful Black-Cloth Dolls: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

“Black Dolls” – two words that encapsulate many physical representations and emotional connotations.

There are cloth dolls that are respectful in nature and there are dolls that are caricatures which exist in the collecting marketplace. There are truly old dolls and modern reproduction folk art dolls made in tribute to the true old rag dolls and caricature styles.

I am going to share what I know about the dolls made by women for children, both black and white. It is not my place to say where these cloth dolls belong in African-American history. What I want to do is start a conversation about how and why these dolls exist and the fact that the majority of truly old dolls were made for children out of a love that transcended racial lines.

The Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts, has a small collection of cloth dolls that were owned by the children of abolitionist Bronson Alcott. Alcott was the father of famous author, Louis May Alcott, who wrote “Little Women.” This is one of the dolls in the collection.. (Photo courtesy The Fruitlands Museum)

The love and craftsmanship in these dolls is clearly demonstrated by how these simple dolls have held up over time. The makers of these pieces of art deserve credit for their work and the heart they put into making these items. I do not feel that these attributes should be overlooked due to the racial connotations some might attribute to “black dolls.”

The cloth dolls of yesterday are not the status symbols of today’s modern dolls. They were made in the day when black women were nannies for children, and the children wanted representations of their caretakers. The dolls were made to be held as comfort in fear, absorb tears and to be used as items of joy for playing, just as any other rag doll. They reflect the moods of their times, as all dolls do. Modern black dolls directly reflect the intelligent, fashionable and successful African-American women who collect them.

There are several ways physically to tell the difference between old and new dolls. According to historian Roben Campbell, who has done extensive research in dating old black cloth dolls, they can be divided into three periods: The Earliest are the Finest (1870-1890), Everyday Calico and Shoe Button (1890-1910) and The Last Stand: The Bottle Dolls (1910-1930). Some of Campbell’s informative research may be found in the catalog and articles on her website: www.blackclothdolls.com.

Campbell’s extensive research, which has included the collection of Pat Hatch, indicates that the 1870-1890 cotton dolls are finely crafted and dressed in rich fabrics, such as wool, linen and velvet. Frequently, the dolls feel firm and have well-made bodies, molded heads and extremities. They often have inset eyes and attached mouths, ears and noses, along with embroidered features. The doll’s hair is commonly made of sewn-on horsehair or fur wigs. A center seam is sometimes present on the front of the face.

The Everyday Calico and Shoe button period from 1890-1910 is characterized by less expensive materials, including the use of black sateen. Faces were embroidered with neutral expressions featuring straight mouths, and shoe buttons came into use for eyes. According to Campbell, old black cloth doll faces were actually redone to reflect the current mood of the time. The neutral mouth enabled a child to interact with the dolls without any predetermined emotion present on the doll.

Bottle dolls encompass the final period. According to Campbell, they were made of bottles that were weighted down by being filled with sand or shot. The bottles were then covered with embroidered doll heads and clothes and used as door stops. Campbell conveys, “The bottle dolls are the most simply made, but have unusual charm, and are favorites today.”

The bottle doll shown may have had her bottle weighted down by sand or shot and could have been used as a doorstop. This period for these dolls is considered to date from 1910-1930. (Photo courtesy Pat Hatch)

Black doll expert Pat Hatch collects non-caricature black dolls. She has been collecting these dolls for more than 35 years and has a website: www.countryandshakerantiques.com where she sells black cloth dolls and other antiques. Her ever-growing collection is inspired by her desire to educate others in the non-monetary value these dolls possess and make people aware of their existence. Her collection began when she saw an old black cloth doll and was struck by the way it was lovingly made and preserved. The truly older dolls she collects are not generally easy to locate. It has taken her years of attending doll shows to accumulate her more than 100-item black cloth doll collection.

In her experience, Hatch has seen several ways modern dolls have been treated to make them look old. They are often stiffened, painted and might be even be dressed in truly old clothing.

The doll I purchased that inspired this article is one such folk art representation doll that is actually dressed in an old cutter quilt. My example even has an old skeleton key around her neck. She has been painted and stiffened, and the detail in her extremities is fabulous. In fact, I first fell in love with her feet and the seamstress who so skillfully sewed them. When I purchased this representation doll, she was sold to me as an actual antique.

From small, low-resolution photos it can be hard to tell the difference. I liked her as a piece of folk art and bid on her as such. When she arrived, I saw her old clothing and my mind filled of questions. While these dolls are not all created to fool people, it can be hard to distinguish truly old and modern for a non-doll collector, so here are a few bits of information from Hatch, to keep in mind:

This lovely black cloth doll is a great example of why the earliest period dolls are the finest. Note the attention to facial detail and craftsmanship reflected in the doll’s overall appearance. (Photo courtesy Pat Hatch)

New dolls are often softer to the touch and light in weight because the filling is polyester and not the heavy cotton batting or rags used in the 1800s. Upon close inspection, the material won’t have developed the creases and permanent folds that can be seen in 100-year-old clothing and body parts. Artificial wear can be done, but with close inspection, it rarely will fool the eye.

Tea dying of material to give fabric the look of age can give the old effect from a distance, but it doesn’t compare when held next to something old and discolored by age. New white thread will fluoresce with black light, so any seams or white thread in the doll’s clothing with give the age away as being new. Maybe the best way to tell a new doll that looks old is your gut feeling. If you think it might not be old, you are probably right.

There are beautiful black cloth dolls. The dolls exist for many reasons, but for me, the bottom line is the answer to the following question: Is it possible to see the artistry and grace these dolls embody, past the societal prejudice and racism, since they are objects created from love? For me, the answer to the question is yes.

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