Speaking of Dolls: Character dolls – Once odd, now interesting

Remember the Edsel from the 1960s and the Pacer from the ’70s? Remember the introduction of the paper dress and the plastic pop beads? These items and many others are introduced each year by manufacturers trying to catch the eye of the consumer. These items are different, a variation of what is in production. Sometimes they are accepted and become part of production but often these introductions are just a little too odd and after brief exposure are relegated to the back shelf.

character doll

Character dolls don’t appeal to everyone.

Interestingly, for some of these “too odd for its time” items, a second chance is given. The once shunned Edsel is now a collector’s item and a mint example of an Andy Warhol paper dress can bring a surprising price. It is no different in the doll world. Doll production was a competitive business and manufacturers and artists were always searching for that model that would catch the public’s eye and would give them the edge in the market. Doll business records tell us how marriages were arranged between competing manufacturers and how spies were sent to steal proposed ideas from neighboring doll makers.

Tempted by the offer of higher wages, artists and designers switched from company to company, taking their ideas with them. It was a challenge for a doll company to come up with something different and to keep it a secret until time to try it out on the buying public.

The tried and true beautiful “dolly faced” doll was the backbone of the doll industry in Germany. This sweet angelic face with its open and close eyes, open mouth with teeth, perfect bisque face, mohair or human hair curls and pose able ball joint body was the most popular of the dolls produced from the late 1800s through the early 1900s and was the biggest income producer for the doll companies.

character doll

Character doll

But like the Ford Company did with the Edsel, periodically doll companies wanted to introduce something different to their line. Some of their new ideas today are only a name mentioned in a company’s record, some we have only a picture of an idea, but a few examples of these variations by a doll company were actually produced briefly and have survived. Today, they have become the rarities for which collectors search.

There are varying reasons why some of the rare doll examples we find today were not produced in larger numbers. One obvious reason was that the doll was not popular with the public at the time. The dolls were not universally “pretty” and did not appeal to the children.

Another reason and probably a more important reason was that many of the rare examples found today required extra work to manufacturer. As today, profit was the bottom line. To produce works that required added time and labor meant that prices had to go up and companies could not remain competitive. To produce a work simply for artistic reasons was not realistic.

Germany was the center of doll production but America was the target market and the buying market in America was primarily white working and middle class families who purchased their toys from catalogs and department stores. A little girl received a doll for Christmas or for a special holiday and that doll had to serve many purposes. That is why the pretty dolly faced German doll was so popular. She had a universal appeal. She could be dressed in a party dress, a play dress or pajamas. She could go to sleep or be awake but she always maintained that sweet angelic face. When variations were introduced, they were found interesting but not a choice for everyday play.

Alt, Beck and Gottschalck introduced a variation of the Bye lo Baby called a Fly lo Baby. It was similar to the familiar Bye lo but had wings and a slightly elfish look. Today it is quite rare because it was too odd to take the place of the favored ordinary life-like Bye lo. Gebruder Heubach produced a popular pouty baby with a molded bonnet but when a variation was introduced with a removable bisque bonnet, its popularity was very limited. Removing the bisque bonnet left the inside of the head exposed – not a pleasant experience for a child and the fragile nature of a bisque bonnet that had to be tied on to remain in place was not practical for play.

Some of the rare doll examples we find today were just too unique to fit into everyday play. The beautiful Oriental dolls, the black dolls in ethnic costumes, the old people with molded beards, mustaches and warts and the soldiers with molded boots and head gear were all wonderful dolls as were the character children with painted features and childlike expressions but if a child could have only one doll, it must be a doll “for all seasons” of play. Only a child from a wealthy family would have the opportunity to have a variety of dolls representing both male and female and different races. The child from the working class family would choose a pretty doll that looked as she did.

As with cars, furniture, jewelry and with every other manufactured product, collectors are thankful when once in a while, a chance is taken and something really unusual is created, if only for a short while. While the ordinary might be the most practical and popular, the odd is fun to look for. Keep your eyes open. In the doll world, rare dolls are generally much more expensive than the common dolly faced doll but in antique shops or at general auctions, non doll people often consider these rare examples “ugly” and do not attach a great deal of value to them. Maybe you will be lucky!