Speaking of Dolls: Passion for doll collecting began early

Ellen Tsagaris, a new columnist for Antique Trader magazine, is a doll advocate, an educator and the author of With Love from Tin Lizzie: A History of Metal Dolls, Mechanical Dolls and Automatons. The life-long doll enthusiast confesses to have never met a doll she didn’t like.
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Close up of a Vintage Greek doll with silk painted face over a mask. She wears a traditional costume with Dowry Coins

Close up of a Vintage Greek doll with silk painted face over a mask. She wears a traditional costume with Dowry Coins. Images courtesy Ellen Tsagaris.

By Ellen Tsagaris

I can’t remember a time in my life when dolls were not around. An early photo of me at about nine months shows my mother standing over my buggy, and a woolly plush lamby next to me. For my one-year photo, the photographer posed me next to a black hard plastic doll made in Greece. She had flowing hair and inset eyes, and a fancy dress.

For years, I would ask my mother if that doll were mine. We had dolls all over my grandparents’ house. My aunt and uncles also lived there, and I lived there the first two or three years of my life. Later, my parents bought my grandfather’s house, and it became our family home.

I began collecting dolls when I was three years old. My mother handed me two Greek dolls from the family collection. One was dressed in The Amalia outfit, the national costume of Greece. The costume was designed by the first modern queen of Greece, whose name was Amalia. The other doll was a soldier, the Evzon, wearing the kilt uniform of the Royal Palace guards. These dolls began my collection.

My family travelled all over the world and the United States. Our house was full of souvenirs and dolls from nearly every country on the globe. I also commandeered a wooden, hand carved Sudanese man playing a drum from my Uncle George. I saw my first antique doll, jointed German bisque with open mouth, probably Armand Marseille or Kestner, when I was five at Fantasy Land in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. After that, I was hooked on antiques.

Soon, I was reading anything I could on dolls. The first doll book I read was John Noble’s Dolls. I got it from my mother when I was seven years old. At nine, my mother gave me Dolls and Doll Makers by Mary Hillier. Many years later, Mary became my pen pal, and we wrote about two letters a month from 1986 until her death in 1999.

Clearly, there was something wonderful about Mary; she was a good friend and she helped me with my book on metal dolls, as well as my dissertation. Mary’s approach to doll study was eclectic. She explored all types of dolls, doll-related items and their history. Because of her, I came to enjoy all types of dolls.

A 14 inch Simon & Halbig German Bisque Doll with artist made clothing and a ball jointed body.

A 14 inch Simon & Halbig German Bisque Doll with artist made clothing and a ball jointed body.

Like Mary Hillier and author Genevieve Angione, I have to admit that I think all dolls are collectible. Honestly, I never met a doll I didn’t like. Having said that, however, I’ve come to focus on metal and mechanical dolls – especially antiques. This interest came as result of researching and writing With Love from Tin Lizzie: A History of Metal Dolls, Dolls With Metal Parts, Mechanical Dolls and Automatons.

I also try to search out unusual china heads, French fashion dolls (especially Huret), wax dolls, Alice in Wonderland dolls, and pre-1960 international costume dolls. But, I confess to having a fondness for many vintage hard plastic dolls, all Barbies, and folk dolls of many kinds.

For the past few years, I have written about dolls, including books, articles, and online columns. Writing about dolls and antiques is my dream job. I’ve also been organizing my own doll museum, called The American Doll and Toy Museum. This will open soon and will be a center for community outreach and education about dolls and toys.

There really isn’t anything about dolls I don’t like. Vintage and artist dolls have their charm, and I really adore the dolls of my 1960s and ’70s childhood.

The Plantaganet Family, inspired by the dolls in The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden. Photo by Dino Milani.

The Plantaganet Family, inspired by the dolls in The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden. Photo by Dino Milani.

Making dolls was important to my mother and grandmothers, too. My mother loved to dress dolls, and started a tradition of taking one doll to redress each Christmas. I still love collecting vintage and antique lace, clothing, jewelry, buttons or trim for doll clothes. My grandmother dressed many dolls for me; if I left a doll without clothes lying around the house, the next morning, it would have an outfit. She couldn’t stand to see an undressed doll.

When she was a little girl, my grandmother didn’t have dolls. Her father died when she was around six. They were living in Kalamata, Greece, and didn’t have much money. She, her mother, and her sister wore black for a good part of their lives. Yet she and my paternal grandmother both loved dressing dolls. Both of my grandmothers were seamstresses.

Besides doll outfits, we sewed tiny quilts and linens for doll houses. My dad was great at building them, and my favorite is a big red house called “Plantagenet House” after the doll house family in Rumer Godden’s book The Dolls’ House. Making and decorating doll houses, shadow boxes and fairy gardens is also another way to express my passion for “all things doll.”

In school, I studied law, English and Spanish. Later, I studied cases involving dolls and their patents and taught literature and diversity courses that involved dolls. Some of the classes I designed focused solely on dolls, and I have given many talks and read papers for private groups and for the Midwest Modern Language Association on them. From time to time, I appraise dolls and I am an avid doll blogger.

Currently, I teach, work in social media for doll organizations and my husband’s company On Guard Security, and work in an antique and jewelry store called Vintage Rose.

I maintain several Facebook pages and Twitter accounts on dolls, including Dr. E’s Doll Museum and Doll Universe. I hope to interest and entertain readers with the wonderful world of dolls and, who knows? Some may even become collectors!

Ellen Tsagaris is a doll advocate, an educator and the author of With Love from Tin Lizzie: A History of Metal Dolls, Mechanical Dolls and Automatons. The life-long doll enthusiast confesses to have never met a doll she didn’t like. Read Ellen’s blog at http://dollmusem.blogspot.com/.

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