While great variety can be found in the faces of bisque, china, wax, wood and Parian antique dolls, even more variety can be found in the faces of dolls made of cloth. Cloth dolls have been popular throughout history. They can be simple rags tied together to form a head, torso and limbs; they can be a simple two-piece doll with a front and back sewn together or they can be very elaborate with dimensional features and detailed costumes.
Because cloth dolls were considered safe for children’s play, many American doll manufacturers included a line of cloth dolls in their inventory. Familiar names such as Horsman, Georgiene Averill and Madame Alexander all had a line of cloth dolls while at the same time producing dolls in composition.
Close-up of face of cloth one-of-a-kind doll circa mid-1800s. Features appear to be drawn with lead. Hair is wig made from hair of child.
Earlier American manufacturers and small cottage industries such as those owned by Ella Smith, Martha Chase, Izannah Walker, the Adams, Julia Beecher and others created cloth dolls exclusively, advertising them as something a child could love. Most of the cloth dolls made by these makers had dimensional features and some of the dolls’ heads were made of sized and molded cloth which when painted with oils gave the head a rigid shape. Produced in very small numbers, today examples from these makers are considered rare and demand top dollar.
Close-up of face of cloth one-of-a-kind doll circa late 1800s. Features are stitched and hair is black silk.
While the manufactured and cottage industry American cloth dolls are rarely found and are sought after in the doll world, it is the homemade and one-of-a-kind American cloth dolls that possess a plain and simple charm that draw many collectors to them.
When searching for the one-of-a-kind primitive cloth dolls today, one must be careful. There are many craftspeople that create aged dolls. We see them at flea markets, craft fairs and on the Internet. Most of these people do not mean to fool anyone. They are creating their dolls for people to use as decorative items in primitive and rustic decor. Unfortunately, many of these aged items fall into the hands of unscrupulous people who then attempt to sell them as “old.”
When you are looking at a cloth doll, observe how it has aged. If a doll is 100 years old or older, look at the areas that should be worn such as the forehead, the nose, the hands and feet and the back of the head. A child playing with a doll would carry it by the arms and legs and these areas should show wear, perhaps one more than another.
Full view of late 1800s doll. Dressed in white cotton.
The face and back of the head are the areas that would be washed or would be rubbed against hard surfaces and wear should be evident. Clothing should be made from period fabric and handmade if prior to 1844, the year of the first working sewing machine. Threads should be cotton and no synthetics should be present. Oil paints often used on the face, shoes or hair on early dolls will appear crackled. If the doll’s hair is not painted it could be made from strips of cotton, silk or wool or human hair very often from a family member.
If possible, undress the doll or look under its garments. If the doll has aged naturally, exposed areas will probably be darker than covered areas. If the doll material has been aged artificially with tea or coffee or has been buried or sprayed, the “aging” will be overall and will not reflect where clothes have been. Even with these hints, you can still be fooled. Cloth dolls with no clothing will have no aging patterns. Cloth dolls with no faces will not allow you to see sewing or painting techniques. And pulling apart a seam is something most dealers would not allow. The best advice, as always, study, study, study – know what you are buying and know from whom you are buying.
Commercial cloth doll, circa turn of the century. Black child printed on cotton. Two pieces sewn together to make front and back.
Questions or comments? Contact Sherry Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org.