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A Brief Historical Sketch on Paper Dolls

Before Barbie, paper dolls were one of the most popular dolls for girls. The history of paper dolls is much longer than we assume.“The first paper dolls were reported in 1280 by explorer Marco Polo. He told of seeing paper figures of human beings as part of Chinese religious rights. Paper dolls as we know them, however, were not seen till the 18th century, when often life-size, jointed paper dolls were created and used as jumping jack toys or marionettes. “(Antiques Collect Mag, 2003:63) As the name itself suggests, “paper dolls are printed on sheets of flat papers, were being made in the early 19th century in England, Germany and France. Some were hand painted in color. Others were printed in black and white, to be colored by the buyer. “(Ibid, 63)

When were paper dolls made for the first time in America? “By 1854, the first paper doll for children was made in America. The publishing company of Crosby, Nichols & Company of Boston included a paper doll named Fanny Gray. The doll came in a box and with a wooden base along with several costumes and a booklet of verses. By 1859 Godey’s Lady’s Book began publishing a complete series of paper dolls.”(Ibid, 63)Paper dolls have “frayed edges, creased mid-sections, and bent clothing tabs. From stubborn Scotch tape to indelible crayon markings, the pitiful paper stories are never-ending. Exceptions to the well-loved-well-worn rule are three series of paper dolls released by Hallmark in the late 1940s: ‘Dolls From The Land of Make Believe,’ ‘Dolls of the Nations,’ and the ‘Little Women Dolls.’ Many can still be found in the colorful and pristine condition that delighted young collectors when the dolls made their debut.” (Johnson, 2010: 20)

After Hallmark’s success, competitors joined the paper doll market. But the market did not last. “After their late-1940s flurry, the Hallmark dolls disappeared until 1954. On re-release, the album covers had changed. Hallmark Dolls originally sold for just 25 cents each (50 cents with the album). Today, individual dolls in mint condition can fetch from $40-45, with each “Little Women” doll averaging $50-75. Just right for any young or young-at-heart doll collector you may know-especially if you “care enough to send the very best.”(Ibid: 25)

As we can see in Hallmark’s beloved series, most paper dolls have a white complexion and are good-looking girls and boys. When was the first black paper dolls produced? “Paper dolls are hardly newcomers. In 1811, an English toy company, S. & J. fuller, printed what is thought to be the first mass-produced black or mulatto paper doll. With curly locks and a swarthy complexion, ‘Protean Man’ was unlike typical African-American male paper dolls seen in the 19th and 20th centuries.” (Antiques & Collecting Magazine, 2007:20)

Moreover, “Grayson notes that black paper dolls, especially those that appeared in the mid-1800s into the mid-1900s, commonly depicted people of African ancestry in subservient and stereotypical roles. “(Ibid, 21)“About 120 examples of Arabella Grayson’s Collection, which totals 300 sets and individual pieces, are now on view at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington D.C. The display includes, ‘Nyla,’ Grayson’s first paper doll, and ‘Mammy and Her Thanksgiving Dinner,’ 1912.” (Ibid, 23) After the introduction of Barbie, paper dolls gradually disappeared.

“Barbie was introduced in 1956. Originally, she had five movable body parts, large pointed breasts, a skinny waist, wore high heels and a black-and-white striped bathing suit.”(Wager-Ott, 2002:248) Barbie is, of course, a three dimensional figure unlike the paper dolls. “Hander, who creates the Barbie, noticed that her own daughter loved to dress and undress paper dolls; therefore, Barbie was finally designed with this notion in mind – to become a manikin for displaying a plethora of fashionable clothing and accessories. “(Wagner-Ott, 2002:248)

Questions of Gender Identity

In general, the connection between gender identity and playing with dolls is explored by many researchers.How girls “dress, the daily rituals through which we attend the body – is a medium of culture.” (Bordo, 1993:165)Duncum (1997) asserts below: “It is from popular culture that most people weave their identities and establish their relationships with others and the environment. Mass media images saturate our lives, structuring much of what we know beyond personal experience. “(Duncum, 1997:70)

As Duncum notes above, most children build up their identity to differentiate themselves from others in the environment. In this sense, Wagner-Ott (2002) asserts “Because of the crucial issues associated with many girl’s perceptions of their own bodies, and about themselves in relation to the formation of gender identities.”(2002:247) The discussion of gender identity has been a controversial issue – which focuses on taking advantage or disadvantage of playing with dolls. Scholars who have commented on children playing with dolls in relation to gender identity have expressed favorable and unfavorable opinions/analyses of this activity.

On the one hand, one researcher in the 1950s argued that female children accustom themselves to the mother’s role by playing dolls. Moreover, De Beauvoir (1957) argued that “since the middle of the 1800s, manufacturing industries had been manipulating parents and girls via dolls in order to help girls adjust and learn about their future roles as wives and mothers.”(Ibid: 251) In this sense, children easily adapt to their mother’s characteristics by role playing. In other words, girls mirror the mother throughout this playing.

On the other hand, some scholars posit that gender identity is negatively affected when children pretend their dolls are princesses. Since playing with dolls is an indoor activity, it may be related to girls becoming passive, motionless. Moreover, girls become emotionally attached to dolls. These associations—indoors as a female space, passive and without agency, emotionally-attached—are characteristics of female stereotypes. As a result, the social construction of the feminine is a significant issue related to playing with dolls.

Mapping Mediated Characteristics from Shadow Playing to Children’s Princess Playing