Souvenir, ethnic dolls or travel dolls have been around for as long as people have traveled. The value of these dolls is usually more in the memories of the trip than in the value of the doll itself. There are, however, some travel dolls that are treasures and these dolls are certainly worth the search.
Before so many of our dolls were made in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, travel dolls were made and dressed in the country where they were purchased. The dolls were an inexpensive token from a place travelers wanted to remember. Most were made in small cottage industries with women and children weaving and hand dyeing fabric, braiding flax and mohair, molding cloth faces and sometimes carving limbs and faces from wood, clay and even ivory. Entire villages were employed to create the travel dolls for an area. These travel dolls were made from native products and truly reflected the people they represented.
Travel dolls from France (earthenware head), Germany (bisque head), U.S.S.R.
Examples of exquisite native art can be found in the travel dolls created before 1950. The dolls we find from Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Balkan Countries often wear native costumes covered with colorful embroidery all done by hand. The cloth and papier mache faces are skillfully formed and painted by local artists.
From Germany and the area surrounding it, we find travel dolls with heads of bisque and celluloid produced by some of the finest doll manufacturers such as Kestner and Kammer and Reinhardt, many dressed in leather lederhosen or outfits representing the Black Forest area. The dolls of the USSR, with their cloth molded faces, their flax hair and their costumes representing the diversity of a nation that no longer exists are a real treasure, especially in large sizes.
Italian doll with colorful felt skirt, two American Indian dolls.
French travel dolls were sometimes French fashions dressed in regional costumes. These dolls, often by Francois Gaultier, are difficult to find in their very elaborate delicate outfits.
The dolls from the Mediterranean area including those from Spain, Italy and Greece are often dressed in vibrant colors and have expressive faces painted by skilled artists. Lenci of Italy created travel dolls in the 1920s and 1930s that are prized today by doll collectors.
Travel to the “mysterious Orient” and to the “dark continent” of Africa was popular in the early 1900s with people of wealth. Beautiful Chinese dolls from this early period including the Door of Hope dolls are prized by collectors and their prices can soar into the thousands. Dolls from Africa adorned with Egyptian coins and faces hidden behind veils of delicate painted silk or native dolls in authentic tribal dress and brightly decorated faces gave us a peek into a land that seemed so far away.
While only the wealthy traveled abroad, Americans did travel here in the U.S. Favorite destinations were National Parks and Indian Reservations. Visitors were also beginning to explore northern Canada and Alaska. Some of our most collectible travel dolls are examples of Native American and Inuit dolls crafted by Native Americans and Inuits and brought back as souvenirs by travelers during this period.
Pair of French Fashion dolls dressed in regional attire.
Today, one would have to really search to find a travel doll actually made in its country of origin. After 1950, most of the travel dolls were being made in Japan, then bought in bulk and dressed in the country they were to represent. I have seen examples of dolls dressed in costumes representing Russia, Italy and Germany but all being the same hard plastic doll … only the clothes varied.
At doll shows and auctions, travel dolls can usually be found at very reasonable prices. The examples of generic hard plastic dolls dressed in various national costumes usually are not priced at more than $5 each, but it’s worth a second look through the box. Early dolls from China, Alaska, remote and infrequently visited countries and from areas whose names or boundaries have changed are very desirable. European dolls with beautiful bisque or china heads are also desirable.
As in any type of collecting, quality, supply and demand help establish a price. Dolls from common destinations such as Mexico, the Caribbean Islands and South America are usually very reasonable because of their supply. Popular European nations are the same but the main factor in determining desirability is the quality of the doll and how it truly reflects the people it represents.