Speaking of Dolls: Know What You Are Looking For

The hobby of doll collecting has changed in the many years I have been involved.

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the prices of dolls were low and collectors tended to buy what they liked or thought was pretty. dolls MVC-001F.jpgNot much time was spent studying the condition and originality. With doll prices being low, collectors did not worry as much about original clothes or eyes being set when they should open and close or bodies being repainted.

Another perhaps more important reason was that there was very little research information available to the collector, so we really didn’t know how the dolls were supposed to be originally. We just bought what we liked and dressed it to suit our taste. Unfortunately, when we look at some of the outfits adorning the dolls of the ‘60s and ‘70s, we say they were dressed to suit our “lack of taste” and also our lack of knowledge. We find many dolls dressed in stiff taffetas and polyester lace. dolls MVC-003F.jpgWe find bold colors that often overwhelm the doll and we find busy patterns that distract the eye from the beauty.

Two mannequins used as store displays
for Cinderella Frocks in the ’40s.

dolls MVC-002F.jpgBecause there was so little information available to the collector, we find that many of the dolls in collections from the ‘50s – the ‘70s are marriages, or put together dolls from various part and pieces. We find German heads on French bodies and French heads on German bodies. We also find bodies that are a combination of both French and German.

Dolls from this period also often have set eyes rather than open and close eyes. The theory was that the eyes would fall out and damage the head so let’s make them permanently open and solve that problem. We now know that this is not the way to solve the problem. If falling out concerns you, you can stuff the head with tissue to hold the eyes in place. Having set eyes when the eyes should open and close today definitely lowers the value of a doll.

With so many collections from this period coming on the market, collectors and dealers must examine the dolls carefully. Common repairs of the ‘50s, even into the early 1980s, included repainting the bodies so that they would look brand new. I can’t tell you how many bodies I have stripped to remove the new paint and when I reached the original paint, only a few scuffs would be visible.

Shiny dynel wigs, while completely inappropriate for an antique doll, were the wigs of choice in the ‘60s. The shinier the better and every doll had to have ringlets. Thankfully, this is an easy problem to solve, but finding wonderful vintage wigs to replace the dynel is often difficult and costly.

In the past 25 years, collectors have had the opportunity to study dolls and to see how they should be. Researchers such as the Coleman family, the Ciesliks, Mary Kromboltz, Dawn Herlocher, Dorothy McGonagle and countless others have provided us with volumes filled with examples of everything from what is the correct dress for a doll to the history of the artists and manufacturers. This information helps the collector and the dealer to be more informed buyers. It also helps the buyers know what problems can be corrected easily and which problems cannot.

In the past three months, I have examined three doll collections that were established during the period we are discussing. doll face closeup mvc-005F.jpgdoll face closeup MVC-004F.jpgThere are wonderful treasures to be found in these old collections, but there can also be hidden surprises.

Close up of intaglio eyes showing the concave pupil with the convex highlight.

If a doll’s eyes are set, check under the wig; with carefully observation, you can tell if the eyes should be stationery or should open and close. Look at the body paint. Is it original? Scuffs on replaced paint will often show the original paint underneath. Check for major body repairs, which could be hidden under the new paint.

Undress a doll you are considering. Look at the proportion of head to body. Check the way the head fits into the neck socket. Research has told us that certain companies used very specific bodies and having the correct body for the head is important to the value of the doll. Many of the dolls with shoulder plates could be purchased originally as a head only. Because of this, bodies can be homemade. These homemade bodies are often charming and can add to the value of a head and are certainly preferred to a new replacement body. Socket heads on the other hand came on commercial made bodies and homemade parts indicate that something is wrong.

Never turn down the opportunity to look at an early collection, but use the research we have available to us in books, online, from observation and through conversation before deciding what to buy.

Questions from readers:

Sarah Michaels from Newark, NJ, found a wonderful mannequin at a local thrift shop and wondered what it could have advertised.

Your mannequin is from the 1940s and advertised Cinderella Frocks, a children’s clothing manufacturer. The 22-inch mannequin was made of rigid latex and had removable arms so that the miniature version of the fashions being advertised could be easily put on the doll.

Monique Rodriquez writes: I am a new collector of antique dolls and often see the term intaglio eyes. How are intaglio eyes different from painted eyes or are they?

Intaglio eyes are painted, but have an extra quality that flat painted eyes do not have. The intaglio eye is carved into the head and often has a highlight that is slightly raised. This technique gives the eyes a dimensional quality.