Existing since the dawn of time, dolls have generations and generations often holding precious memories.
Their evolution over the centuries is closing linked to linked to fashion as well as innovation and social change.
The making of dolls - painting from Angelo Courten, end of the 19th century
Ancient time dolls
Dolls are among the most ancient objects dating back to the paleolithic era.
The eldest was discovered in Siberia in 2017. Carved from soaprock it is 4,500 years old. Wooden paddle dolls made as early as the 21th century BC were also discovered in Egypt.
Archaeologists have also confirmed that dolls were used in Ancient Greece and Rome. Made of a great diversity of natural materials such as clay, wood, wax, bone, ivory, jade stone, several were found in graves and in particular children’s tombs. Most were rather rudimentary yet some could be considered as work of art: articulated and delicately painted.
Their purpose is to this day still quite unclear. Depending on the culture and civilization it is supposed that they were either used as children’s toys or as symbols for rituals. Some were even believed to hold magical powers.
For example Greek brides would offer their dolls to the Gods before getting married. Ancient Japanese dolls were used for protection and religious ceremonies. Thus Kintarō dolls were a gift made to children during a specific day of the Tango no Sekky Holiday set aside the celebrate the joy of childhood and honour infants.
African dolls were used as a mean of education and entertainment. Some like the vaudoo dolls were attributed super natural powers.
The frontier between dolls as a toy and ritual symbols is often hard to trace.
New methods of production and materials
During the Middle Ages little is known of doll usage. Mainly made of rags, they did not resist the trial of time. It is in the 16th century that a real doll production started to emerge. In Paris they were produced by the “bimbelotiers” and sold upon fairs.
During the 17th century French dolls were made of woods and paper mâché whereas England, slightly ahead was already using wax. During the 18th century, dolls met a big success and innovation in the production process continued.
During the first half of the 19th century doll heads were made of fragile porcelain from China. They were then replaced by bisque dolls made of biscuit porcelain giving a realistic skin like shade to the heads. Very popular in Europe and in particular in France and Germany, these antique dolls are deeply sought after by collectors.
Until 1869 dolls bodies were made of sewn fabric and filled with bran. The discovery of celluloid was a real revolution, much cheaper and less fragile than porcelain, it was well suited to children. Since 1945 most dolls are now made of plastic or synthetic materials.
Half way between fashion dolls and engraving, paper dolls were launched by the English in the 1970’s. Cheaper too produced, much smaller and lighter, they could easily be sent abroad. However they were also very fragile. Empresses, actresses and mothers were most often used as models for these dolls and later on children.
The Shirley Temple doll, star child of the 1930’s had a huge success.
New body shapes and features
Not only did the materials change over the decades but the body shapes too. In Ancient Greece dolls with articulated limbs already existed but these became more and more sophisticated as time went by. In 1858 Mlle Rohmer created dolls with an entirely mobile head. Then came dolls with eyelids that could be closed and opened. The date of creation of glass eyes remains unknown however we do know that doll eyes were mostly brown until Queen Victoria launched the fashion of blue eyes. And over the last decades dolls which could speak, drink and even give birth were created…
Until the 19th century dolls imitated adults more than babies and were mainly women. The company Jumeau were among the first to create new born dolls and even received medals at the universal exhibitions during the Second Empire.
Then in 1959 was born the famous Barbie doll created by Mattel. Grown-up she was designed as a symbol of the independent women as a source of inspiration for little girls to reflect upon.
When looking back at the history of dolls, one must also mention fashion dolls which appeared in the 16th century. Designed for adults they were sent to the royal courts of Europe to present the latest fashion trends. Philippe IV sent a doll with a full wardrobe to his daughter Isabelle, future queen of England as a gift. Henri IV did the same for his wife Marie de Médicis to allow her to become familiar with French fashion.
Despite the birth of fashion magazines and engravings, fashion dolls did not disappear. In the 1920’s fashion dolls became very popular. In 1924 at “ L’exposition des Dames d’aujourd’hui” ( the exhibit of Today’s women) 25 standing dolls presented the evolution of fashion since 1900.
Among the most famous fashion dolls were of course the Parisian dolls. Ambassadors of French style and elegance, they were dressed by the most famous fashion houses. Entire trousseaux were made with stunning realism. Miniature pearl earrings, velvet purses, delicate shoes and even corsets were created for dolls. Their luxurious wardrobes could be reproduced thanks to patterns sold in specific magazines.
To this day, dolls continue to delight us. Kept for their beauty, historical heritage, financial value or by nostalgia, the number of adult doll collectors is thriving.
To extend the enchantment of doll collections, Charlotte sy Dimby has designed a highly limited edition of unique collector miniature smocked dresses.
Each doll outfit comes with a delicate frilled leg bloomer and a little purse to use for storage or travelling.
To learn more on the history of dolls we invite you to read the following article: