Speaking of Dolls: The mysterious Burgarella

Once in a while, you come across something so different that you want to share it with your doll friends. This is the case with a doll that I have recently acquired. It is not a doll that every collector will love and certainly not one that every collector would like to add to their collection, but it is one that deserves to be recognized for its unique features that reflect the period of its origin.

The Burgarella doll firm began in Rome in 1926. Gaspare Burgarella, a Sicilian industrialist, provided the financial backing needed for the company. Records are scarce but it is believed that Italian artist Ferdinando Stracuzzi provided the designing talent to create the dolls sold by this firm.

The doll firm was small and only lasted for about nine years but the dolls produced were of exceptional quality and were in demand both in Italy and abroad. It is recorded that New York importers, Hoest and Henderson, imported the dolls to the U.S. in 1929. It is not known how many dolls were produced but, because the dolls were very expensive for their time, their numbers were very limited.

Changes were taking place in the 1920s in the United States and throughout the world. These changes affected fashion, furniture, architecture, design and life styles. Gone were the whimsical fantasy styles of the Art Nouveau period and, instead, a period of more geometric and stylized forms emerged. With this change we see emphasis on function and practicality and on sophistication and subtle drama. We can see this change reflected in the face, body and clothing of the Burgarella doll.

The Burgarella dolls have many unique features. First and most notable are the eyes. The painting technique required up to nine shades of color for the cornea, iris and the shading. The eyes have a look of sadness and innocence while at the same time reflecting the Deco sophistication of the ’20s. The combination of dark and light colors such as purples, yellows and blues and the shading of blacks and whites used on the eyes of these dolls can be seen in fashion magazines of the ’20s.

A heavy dark colored composition-type material coated with a thin layer of plaster, a base coat and two additional layers of delicate paint gave the dolls a perfectly smooth skin surface. Rather than being squatty and chubby with rolls of fat and dimpled cheeks, the look of most dolls of the period, the Burgarellas were more angular in build similar to a mannequin. Their faces are triangular rather than round giving them the look of an older child. Their stomachs are flat and their arms and legs are muscular. The joints at the shoulders, elbows, knees and hips are formed to be smooth and to allow the doll to be posed in many positions. The look is of a strong child ready to go out and take part in swimming, cycling, walking and other athletics being emphasized during that time as part of a healthy life style for males and females.

While a few Burgarella dolls have been found dressed in costumes reflecting earlier periods, most are dressed in the more linear lines of the ’20s. Organza was a favorite material used in dressing the dolls but some of the most striking costumes were created from combinations of vivid colored felt often arranged in geometric patterns. The shoes were also made of felt.

A cloth tag reading “Burgarella Made in Italy” was stitched to one piece of the clothing but because the tag was fragile, it is rarely found intact. Known sizes for the Burgarella dolls are 16-18 inches and 20-22 inches. They have been found as boys, girls, black and Oriental, the last two being extremely rare.

The dolls came with both human hair and mohair wigs and rarely with molded hair. While the clothing was tagged, the dolls are not marked in any way, but identifying these dolls is not difficult. Once you have seen one, you will always be able to recognize the unique look of these mysterious children.

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