Dolls may well be the most collected item in the country. Character advertising dolls are not as popular as many other types of dolls, but this is good news for those who love them. They’re far more affordable than many other dolls.
The first true character advertising dolls were manufactured around 1900. These early dolls featured Aunt Jemima (pancakes), Uncle Moses (flour), Yellow Kid (chewing gum), and others. The Aunt Jemima dolls are among the earliest, produced as early as 1893. These first dolls were basically rag dolls. While there have been many other types of character advertising dolls produced, it’s interesting that some of the more recent dolls from McDonald’s, Burger King, and Planter’s Peanuts are simple cloth dolls that echo the early days of dolls as advertising (although the dolls are of considerably lesser quality).
Some character advertising dolls were premiums – either given away with a purchase or sold for far below their true value with the purchase of the product advertised by the doll. They were usually found in grocery stores. Some dolls were even printed on the back of flour sacks to be cut out and assembled by the consumer. I find the dolls given away as premiums of special interest because of the nostalgia involved. Such dolls have a connection to the past – similar to that of depression glass given away as a premium in oats (usually located right inside the container).
Other character advertising dolls were sold at full retail value. A great many dolls of more recent vintage fall into this category. These dolls required no purchase of the product, they were a product themselves. While such dolls are attractive, to me they have the feel of a created collectible – something that doesn’t become collectible on its own, but it rather created for the sole purpose of being collected. One might ask what is the difference, but a premium doll has a direct connection to everyday life in the past – purchasing oaks, flour, or syrup at the local grocery. Dolls simply sold to cash in on the popularity of the product just don’t have the same sense of nostalgia. Of course, that’s just my opinion.
Very early dolls can be extremely difficult to locate. In all my decades of collecting antiques, I can’t remember once running across a pre-1940s advertising character doll. I’m sure collectors who specialize in such dolls have a keener eye for spotting them, but the early dolls are an illusive bunch. While many such dolls date back to the early part of this century, the great majority of those collected today are of recent vintage. Many were produced in great numbers. This is good news for collectors. Even though the demand is considerable, the supply of character advertising dolls matches the demand. This helps keep the prices low. Cloth dolls from the last few decades are an especially good bargain. I have spotted a great number of them recently for $15 and under.
What dolls are out there to collect? A complete answer to this question would fill a number of books. Name a company that has produced something in the 20th century and there will probably be a character advertising doll to go with it. Some of the most well known dolls include: McDonalds, Campbell’s Kids, Keebler Elves, Borden’s Elsie Cow, Big Boy, and Tony the Tiger. The list doesn’t stop here, however. Interested in Bazooka Bubblegum, Chesty Potato Chips, Eskimo Pies, Frostie Root Beer, Long John Silvers Fish, Morton Salt, or Sinclair Gasoline? There are character advertising dolls to go with all these products, and many, many more.
How much can one expect to pay? Rare dolls can go for $50 and up, with some early examples ranging into the hundreds. Most such dolls fall into the under $25 range, with a good many available for $10-$15. A quick perusal of eBay reveals even lower prices. Burger King dolls from the 1970s go for as low as $4. Mr. Peanut, of Planter’s Peanuts can be had for $5. Campbell’s Soup kids can be found for $5, too. Of course, these prices do not include shipping, but they are evidence of some real bargains out there. If one wishes to expand beyond advertising character dolls into simple premiums the costs go even lower.
One reason for the low values is the recent vintage of many of the dolls. A great many of those collected today were produced in the 1960s, ’70s, and even the ’80s and ’90s. The greatest factor keeping prices low, however, is the tremendous supply. Most such dolls were inexpensively produced and either given away as premiums or sold for a modest sum. Literally tens of millions have been produced.
Collectors should keep in mind that many dolls have been produced with minor variations over the years. The Ronald McDonald doll is a good example. The 1971 version, the reprint of that version, and the 1977 version have only minor differences, mainly in the McDonalds logo on the pockets, the collar, and the “zipper.” There isn’t much difference in the values of the different versions of the Ronald McDonald dolls, but the same is not true of all dolls. A minor variation could mean a big difference in value so pay attention to details.
Where can character advertising dolls be found? The best source I have found so far is antique malls and eBay.com. Antique shops, shows, and flea markets are good sources as well, but malls and eBay seem to be the best. Shipping costs can considerably up the price on eBay, however, so don’t forgot to take this cost into consideration. Searching for character advertising dolls on eBay isn’t a simple matter either. A search for “character advertising doll” will result in few hits. It’s necessary to search for specific types of dolls, such as Cracker Jack, Eskimo Pie, or Quaker Oats.
One source to keep an eye on is yard and garage sales. Although most antiques and collectibles are not easy to find here, character advertising dolls are of such recent vintage that they often pop up at these sources. When they are found, they are generally quite inexpensive. There are some real bargains to be found at yard and garage sales so keep your eyes open.
Wherever you find them, character dolls are a fun and inexpensive collectible that even those of us with limited funds can still collect.
Early dolls and especially rare examples can be quite costly, but these are happily the exception and not the rule. Character advertising dolls can pop up just about anywhere. I’ve found them at any antique and collectible source one cares to name. Keep an eye out for character advertising dolls on your antiquing excursions and soon you will have assembled quite a collection.
Vintage Doll Collector.com has a nice site that features character advertising dolls as well as character dolls. Check it out at www.vintagedollcollector.com/advert.htm.
Price Guides and Books:
Unfortunately, most books on character advertising dolls I could locate are out of print. The good news is that the out of print guides can be found on amazon.com for much less than their original purchase price.
In print guide:
Advertising Dolls: The History of American Advertising Dolls from 1900-1990 by Myra Yellin Outwater. $22.76 on Amazon.com ($29.95 most other locations), Paperback, 160 pages.
Out of print guides:
Advertising Character Collectibles by Warren Dotz. This beautifully illustrated book is filled with color photos and prices for all types of character collectibles, including dolls.
Advertising Dolls Identification & Value Guide by Joleen Robison & Kay Sellers. This books has tons of information, prices, and photos on all types of character dolls, including cloth dolls.
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