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From Manicured to Macabre: A Brief History of Dolls

by Museum Conservator Sydney Horner with Research Intern Mandy Lindsay

Five antique dolls
 

Don’t miss our limited-time mini-exhibit featuring antique dolls from Heritage Museum’s collection. Available for viewing in the Kellogg House Parlor during our public hours. (Sundays October 22nd and October 29th from 10am-2pm).

 

It’s no question that Barbie was the preeminent pop culture icon of summer 2023. Director Greta Gerwig’s Hollywood hit starring Margot Robbie prompted a resurgence of interest in all things pink and plastic. According to market analytics firm Circana, sales of Barbie dolls increased 25% in July and August of this year. The recent Barbie obsession and doll fascination is nothing new to our culture. There is evidence that dolls have existed since the Paleolithic Era. Over their thousands, if not millions of years of existence, they have taken on a variety of figures and forms and have been made of every type of material from wax to wood. Dolls have been used as more than just toys throughout history. Dolls have played important roles in religious rites and rituals. Dolls have helped people in times of mourning, protected people from worry or anxiety, and educated children on various topics. Whether you love dolls, steer clear of the uncanny creations, or pay them no mind, you cannot deny their importance in every era and facet of society.

 

Dolls in the Victorian Era

Victorian-style doll lying in a doll bed
Victorian-style doll in the Children’s Room of the Kellogg House

As representative human figures, dolls typically reflect the culture in which they are produced. Victorian dolls reveal the lavish, class-obsessed aestheticism of the era. The most sought-after dolls were made of porcelain. This highly delicate material gave dolls the white complexion that was a racialized marker of beauty at the time. Dressed in fashionable clothing, and wigged with human hair, porcelain dolls became status symbols. For families who couldn’t afford expensive porcelain or bisque (unglazed porcelain) dolls, they often crafted their own dolls from common materials such as cloth, rags, paper, wood, and even wax. With the onset of the second industrial revolution in the late 19th century, dolls of all kinds were mass-produced. Dollhouses were popularized as a means of teaching domestic roles and cultural norms. At a time in which many children were sent off to work as young as four or five years old, toys that trained children to take on adult roles were highly prized. Even in wealthier families, in which children led more leisurely lives, parents valued their children’s education and prepared them early for adult life. Baby dolls allowed young girls to practice motherhood, while doll houses allowed them to stage scenarios from grown-up life.

 

Dolls also served a purpose in Victorian life beyond play. Mourning dolls were common in the late nineteenth century. When Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert died in 1861, she went into mourning—a stark withdrawal from public life. This sparked a popular obsession with death and grief—in which mourning culture pervaded every aspect of life. To commemorate the dead, Victorian mourners would stage post-mortem photographs of their loved ones. Women would also weave elaborate memorial wreaths or jewelry with locks of their loved ones’ hair. In the Victorian Era, infant and child mortality rates were incredibly high. Many Victorian children did not live to adulthood. When a child passed, it was common for the family to commission the creation of a wax, life-size effigy of the deceased. Wigged with the child’s hair, outfitted in the child’s clothes, and sculpted with a flat back and head, mourning dolls would be displayed at the wake and then laid to rest above the child’s grave. Those grieving might continue to care for the doll as if it were a living child, bringing it home to lie in a crib. Mourning dolls have evolved into what we know today as reborn dolls.

 
Engraving of a family attending a Victorian funeral
Engraving of “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (The Village Funeral). Frank Holl, 1872, 19th Century
 

Mourning culture also seeped its way into child’s play. Along with dollhouses and furniture, girls were presented with coffins fitted for their dolls. These “Death Kits” included mourning clothes, so that girls could play “funeral” just as they would play “house” or “tea party.” Just as women in the Victorian era were called upon to care for the living, they would also be called upon to care for the dead. Girls were given these “Death Kits” as a means of training them for when they one day may need to prepare a body for burial, plan a funeral, or care for the grieving.

 

The Psychology of Pediophobia (Fear of Dolls)

 

Pediophobia, which describes the extreme, irrational, and often debilitating fear of dolls, is quite rare. Many people, however, feel considerably uncomfortable around dolls. There are many theories about why people might feel “creeped out” by the mere presence of a doll. Some attribute this to the concept of the “uncanny valley.” In his research, roboticist, Masahiro Mori described how the more humanlike something or someone appears, the greater affinity we have with it. Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe the phenomenon of how our affinity with objects greatly decreases when a non-living object has humanlike qualities. Dolls certainly dip into the “uncanny valley.” With developments in technology, dolls have become more and more realistic, making them more “uncanny.” It can often appear as though a doll’s eyes are following you, giving some the eerie sense that they are being watched.

A collection of doll heads
It can often appear as though a doll’s eyes are following you.

Others blame Hollywood for their fear of dolls. In 1963, an episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone known as “Living Doll” premiered, featuring a doll known as “Talky Tina.” A young girl brings Talky Tina home to her stepfather. When he is alone, her stepfather is taunted and terrorized by Tina’s antagonizing comments and threats of murder as retaliation for his poor treatment of his stepdaughter. Since “Living Doll,” there have been countless films and television shows devoted to the idea of a creepy or even killer dolls or dummies. From Chucky (Child’s Play, 1988) to Annabelle (The Conjuring, 2013), to M3GAN (2022), Hollywood has repeatedly branded dolls as sinister, hostile, corporeal creatures. While this trope may not be the sole cause of our collective fear of dolls, it certainly has contributed to it.

 

We also may point to our deep-rooted connection of dolls with death that dates back to the Victorian mourning culture. It’s possible that the unsettling idea of the mourning doll stuck with society, and popular culture began to reflect this connection. While creepy dolls like Chucky or Annabelle may seem juxtaposed to Barbie, they share common roots. Created as tools and toys with which to mimic human life, dolls reflect our culture. Whether macabre, mournful, magical, or manicured, dolls are perhaps as multi-faceted as human life itself.

 

Sources

Brand, Kara. “The Eerie Story Behind Victorian Mourning Dolls.” The Line-Up. December 17, 2020. https://the-line-up.com/victorian-mourning-dolls.

 

“Dolls from the Index of American Design.” National Gallery of Art. Accessed October 16, 2023. https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/dolls-from-the-index-of-american-design.html#slide_1

 

Hart, Maria Teresa. “How Porcelain Dolls Became the Ultimate Victorian Status Symbol.” Smithsonian Magazine. November 1, 2022.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-porcelain-dolls-became-the-ultimate-status-symbol-180980945/.

 

“The History of Dolls.” Charlotte sy Dimby. April 5, 2019. https://charlottesydimby.fr/blogs/news/the-history-of-dolls.

 

Hung, Louise. “Cabinet of Curiosities: Victorian Death Doll.” The Order of the Good Death. March 25, 2018. https://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/article/cabinet-of-curiosities-victorian-death-dolls/.

 

Kavilanz, Parija. “Barbie toy sales shoot up 25% after film’s release.” CNN. September 13, 2023. https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/13/business/barbie-toy-sales-circana/index.html.

McRobbie, Linda Rodriguez. “The History of Creepy Dolls.” Smithsonian Magazine. July 15, 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-creepy-dolls-180955916/.

 

Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley,” translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki. IEEE Spectrum. June 12, 2012 (originally 1970). https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-uncanny-valley/.

 

Wendroff, Jessica Ariel. “From Annabelle to Chucky: 8 Demon Dolls Featured in Horror Movies.” The Hollywood Reporter. June 19, 2019.

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lists/annabelle-chucky-8-demon-dolls-featured-horror-movies-1171801/.

 

“The World of Victorian Grave Dolls.” Burials and Beyond. Accessed October 16, 2023. https://burialsandbeyond.com/2019/01/20/the-world-of-victorian-grave-dolls/.