Speaking of Dolls: Oriental influence on antique china-head dolls reaches back 160 years

By Sherry Minton

Today as we shop for dolls, the label “Made in China” is ever present but the Oriental influence in the doll world was seen much earlier.

In 1851, Edmund Lindner, a prominent doll merchant from Sonneberg, Germany, visited the London World Exhibition. One of the doll displays that caught his eye was a group of dolls from the Orient. These dolls, unlike any others seen by Linder, were different. Most of the dolls previously produced in Germany and in France represented ladies. These Oriental dolls had youthful faces and represented young children and infants.

Modified flat top china head doll features hair that is parted in the middle and flat on top with short curls around the base.

Dressed very simply, the Oriental dolls had moveable hands and feet. The lower arms and legs were hollow cylinders made of stiffened paper or paper mache. The hip was also paper mache as was the head and shoulder plate. The torso area was made of paper. This paper connected the shoulder plate to the hips. Within this paper cylinder, a round crier was placed. When the body was squeezed together, a sound was made. Rice paper also connected the lower arm to the shoulder and the lower leg to the hip. This type of jointing is referred to as “floating joints” because of its ease of movement.

When Lindner saw these unique dolls, he purchased one and took it back to one of the doll manufacturers in Sonneberg. He asked that the manufacturer produce a similar doll.
The doll was an instant success and the manufacturer could not keep up with the orders. The first dolls produced were of paper mache; the next were wax or wax over paper mache. The dolls were dressed simply in a shift and a bonnet and were referred to as “tauflings,” meaning baby or young child.

These round-faced, short-necked dolls became an instant hit with the children. Many of the doll firms in both Germany and France produced examples. The paper joints were eventually replaced by fine kid leather or linen and along with the wax and paper mache heads, china and bisque heads were added. The very round face and short neck remained fashionable for about 30 years.

The “covered wagon” china head doll epitomizes the simple hair style we think of when we imagine women in wagon trains headed to the Old West.

Along with the taufling body with its many floating joints, these round-faced heads were also placed on the more familiar cloth and kid bodies. The round head with little or no hair, very popular in the 1850s, was modified and heads with molded hair styles became very desirable. Even with molded hair including curls and molded decorations, the round face and short neck remained popular, especially in Germany and therefore in America since we were their major customer.

One of the most beautiful dolls from this period is the “covered wagon” hairstyle. While very simple in design, a covered wagon china is the picture of what a china should be. Her hair is parted in the middle, falls smoothly down to her ears and is in vertical curls around her head. She is the face we think of when we picture covered wagons traveling West with strong women in bonnets protecting themselves from the weather. While much different from the earlier “tauflings,” this doll still retains the round face and short neck that Lindner found so appealing.

During this period from 1850 through 1880, hairstyles of chinas varied. Some were bald and had hair wigs. Some had elaborate molded decorations in their hair. Some were simple and elegant.

The doll business in Germany was a very competitive business and the many manufacturers were always in search of the next “look” to grab the market. One new look to be introduced was the Frozen Charlotte doll. This immobile doll, entirely made of china, came in sizes from less than an inch to at least 16 inches. More correctly called a pillar doll or a bathing doll, this doll still retained the very round face and short neck of the “taufling.”

The Frozen Charlotte, also known as a “pillar” or “bathing doll,” is immobile and composed entirely of china. Also shown: A bald china head that would have sported a wig of hair.

By the 1880s, the popularity of the china heads was beginning to wane. Bisque dolls with open and close eyes and realistic ball joint bodies were pushing the chinas aside. Many of the chinas of the 1880s have variations of the popular flat top hairstyle. Parted in the middle and flat on top with short curls around the base, this face still retained the short neck and round face of the very odd little Oriental tauflings first seen in London in 1851.

The Doll Market
Some good show news for doll collectors: We all know that the economy is down and we also know that all markets have suffered, including the doll market. But there is still light at the end of the tunnel.

I have participated in three shows in the past three months. All have been well attended and all have had buyers. The buyers may not be buying the high priced items as eagerly as in the past but they are attending and buying and the interest in dolls is still there.
We have lots of “supply” on the market right now and collectors are able to pick and choose. Perfect examples are still bringing top dollar while mediocre stays on the table.

Auction prices at the last three major doll auctions have exceeded presale estimates for the rare and unusual. While supplies are plentiful, for the collector, now is the time to buy. If you are trying to sell your dolls, it will depend on what you have. If you have collected wisely and have dolls in excellent condition, you should do well, even in this economy.

Sherry Minton has served as president of three clubs belonging to the United Federation of Doll Clubs, Inc. She is a senior member of the American Society of Appraisers with a Designated  Specialty in Dolls and Toys. Minton can be contacted at dollypictures@aol.com.

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