Paper dolls offer something old, something new and something even newer

Today’s amazing abundance of toys makes it difficult to realize how, during the Great Depression, dolls with dresses proved out-of-reach luxuries for many little girls.

Fortunately, two-dimensional playmates came more readily to hand when a dime bought a book of paper dolls to be cut out and dressed. Included were little tabs to fold and fasten on paper clothes. Often, these dolls when pasted onto cardboard could even stand upright and be moved about.

For still less fortunate youngsters, figures from catalogs might serve imaginations. A child could draw, color and cut clothes or scissor garments from magazines and newspapers. More affluent families who purchased expensive Shirley Temple dolls often complemented such treasures with paper doll books reproducing the little star’s lovely clothes.

Predictably, because paper is so perishable and creates scarcity, these inexpensive cutouts are now highly prized by grandmothers who wisely or fondly kept them. Mid-20th century paper dolls are also highly priced because of rarity. Result: A huge industry of reproductions and brand new paper dolls sources has proliferated.

Many excellent books document the history of these artifacts. Paper Dolls: How To Find, Recognize, Buy, Collect And Sell The Cutouts Of Two Centuries by Anne Tolstoi Wallach (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1982) describes the culture and history of fashions and the development of printing techniques from lithography to high speed newspapers.

In 1942 when the Mills Brothers made their hit record I Want a Paper Doll to Call My Own few realized this was during the peak of what is considered paper dolls’ golden years. These playthings could be traced to Japanese creations found in 900AD; puppet-like jumping-jack figures called pantins were popular in Louis XV’s court; and those dolls in England’s Victorian era in Godey’s Lady’s Book. But the 1970s found interest fading, largely because of TV and inexpensive three-dimensional dressed dolls. Even so, children today who never heard of cutouts called Betsy McCall or Tillie the Toiler or John Wayne and Grace Kelly have rummaged through their mothers’ or grandmothers’ treasures and discovered that what goes around often comes around again. They are experiencing a pleasant way to learn history, culture, fashion and design. More and more kids and grownups are finding paper dolls to call their very own.

To learn more

Mary Young’s numerous books about paper dolls published from the 1970s to 2000 by Collector Books, Paducah, Ky., include 20th Century Paper Dolls: Identifying and Value. It features 1,300 photographs and offers brief histories and pertinent facts about 150 paper doll producing companies, names too numerous to list but familiar to many in the boomer generation. Among them, incidentally, especially for those thinking these dolls appeal only to girls, England’s Golden Age Editions produced Paper Soldiers; The Illustrated History Of Printed Paper Armies Of The 18th, 19th & 20th Centuries, by Edward Ryan (1995).

Dover Publications, Mineola, N.Y., lists 370 books of paper dolls favored by collectors of all ages. Their subjects range from ancient cultures to today’s celebrities. Artists featured include Grace G. Drayton, noted for her Campbell Kids and 200 pages of Dolly Dingle paper dolls produced between 1916 and 1933. Among Dover’s modern artists, Tom Tierney is considered by many to be the most published and celebrated. He’s created hundreds of paper dolls, expertly combining fashion and history. They include early and modern movie stars, royalty and American presidents – including Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush.

Tierney will be honored at the International Paper Doll Convention, Aug. 6-10, 2008, at the Embassy Suites in Piscataway, N.J. Its sponsor is the Original Paper Doll Artists Guild (OPDAG) founded in 1984 by fashion artist and author Judy M. Johnson. Members pay annual dues of $27 and receive a quarterly magazine. These professional and amateur artists are creating new clothing styles on paper and re-creating the historical and popular costumes of bygone years. OPDAG is headquartered in Kingfield, Maine, and can be contacted by phone 207-265-2500 or email

Early paper doll clothes did not come with the folding tabs to dress the dolls that we see today, but were attached with tiny drops of beeswax which were not greasy, therefore did not leave a mark when the clothing was removed.

First celebrity paper doll: A doll portraying the renowned ballerina Marie Taglioni, published in the 1830s. In 1840, a boxed set was done of another ballerina, Fanny Elssler, as well as of Queen Victoria.