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Christmas Dolls

Christmas Dolls – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – December 2004

by Dorothy McGonagle

What is a Christmas Doll? Surely there are as many answers as there are people who have received dolls or given dolls to girls for Christmas. For many, a doll they received as a Christmas gift, perhaps from Santa, treasured as a child, and kept or remembered into adulthood, bridges the years and keeps those memories alive. Most family albums have pictures of Christmas; the children, the tree, the toys, the dolls; doll collectors particularly enjoy these, as they substantiate the types of dolls played with in any era. For a century and a half, photography has been remarkable in documenting history and life. In giving us a window into times past, photos of children with their dolls can provide a distinct emotional connection. What is clear is that the doll does not need to be the finest example available at its time. It can be a homely doll, a primitive handmade doll exhibiting more love than talent, a common German bisque doll of the type made by the millions, and for the past several decades, it very often is a Barbie doll.

Looking back through the years, both personally and through antique photographs, it is obvious that dolls sustain a classic Christmas presence. Christmas cards from the Victorian era show Father Christmas or Santa Claus with dolls in his pack for good little girls. Photographs of a Christmas room generally have a decorated tree surrounded by the requisite toys: trains, teddy bears, and of course, dolls. Other illustrations depict little girls dreaming of the doll which is hoped will come into her life. Some of these are shown in illustration. I find the Christmas card with the two girls showing each other their Christmas dolls especially endearing.

Sometimes the history of a child receiving a certain doll is kept with the doll. One such doll was found in as-new condition with a note attached: “Anne’s last Christmas doll – age 13.” We don’t know if Anne felt she was “too old for dolls,” or why she never played with the doll, but this sweet German bisque from the 1880s, with her fancy original commercially made chemise, must have been treasured, as it was kept clean and safe for nearly a century, before passing to a doll collector who may have cherished her as a Christmas present to herself. (Illus.)

This is not uncommon with the adult doll collectors of today, adding dolls to their collections with the justification of “it’s my Christmas gift”…. I remember the year my husband and I gave each other the new furnace for Christmas … the surprise was that we weren’t going to make it through the winter with the old one… and a couple of years later, having recovered a bit, I found a doll I just loved. (Illus.) She was a beautiful early Jumeau bebe all dressed in green and red, ready for a winter’s outing, and she was welcomed with the rationale of being a “Christmas gift.” She is a Christmas doll both in fact and in appearance, and she still warms my soul, while the furnace has had to be replaced yet again.

The French Fashion doll in illustration is another example of a doll that might have been a Christmas doll for several owners. Originally made in the 1870s, she could very well have started her life as a Christmas gift for a wealthy child. Sometimes a doll will be found with several nearly identical outfits, commercially or couturier-made, and one can sense that such a doll and its wardrobe represented a special gift. Wardrobes and accessories for French lady dolls were very important, and expensive, so subsequent Christmases were a fine opportunity for gifting new little treasures for an existing doll. It is interesting to examine a fashion doll’s wardrobe and find subtle costume changes consistent with a decade’s changes in fashion – the span of time a child might have played with the doll. If part of a documented provenance, it is all considered “original,” representing the time-span of the original owner. With “Miss Snoot” and the Christmas tree are several accessories that a lady might need, including a “Papeterie” for writing her requisite notes, a watch, jewelry, scissors and her rosary beads, little treasures both the original child owner or current adult owner would enjoy.

The small Brevete Bru is pictured in illustration 3 with her original signed Brevete chemise and signed Bru shoes, which she was probably purchased wearing. Additionally, she has two glorious couturier-made outfits, a pink and blue confection and a claret red construction that seem to shout: I made a little girl very happy one Christmas day!

A wax baby in swaddling clothes in its original box is documented as a gift in the 1840s, and with its colorful paper trim looks like Christmas personified! In illustration 5, the baby is surrounded by a group of 19th-century silk fringe Christmas cards. Though later than the doll, one depicts a girl with her doll family, illustrative of the new importance of childhood in the later Victorian period, and of the significance of dolls in a Victorian child’s life. Another Victorian Christmas scrap with a tree and angel carrying a doll provides the backdrop for two other Christmas dolls… a little German character boy K*R 107 and an all-bisque “wrestler” in their appropriate winter dress. One can readily imagine them having been Christmas dolls in their first lives. (Illus.)

Perhaps the most touching of dolls are those made by family members for a child. A black rag and a white hand-made Raggedy Ann were both surely treasured by their lucky owners, who lived and learned nurturing through dolls. (Illus.)

A typical doll of the 1920s that might have been found under a Christmas tree, particularly in New England is the cloth doll by Martha Chase seen with the calendar dated 1923, precisely her era. Martha Chase made her dolls in Pawtucket Rhode Island, so they were more plentiful in this area; local photographs sometimes include a Chase doll as part of a doll family. (Illus.)

Dolls of the second quarter of the 20th century are still coming out of homes and thus often retain their original provenances. With the explosion of amateur photography during this period, candid shots of the child and their toys or dolls are sometimes available, a nice adjunct to the doll. Sometimes just the photos survive; the far right photo in illustration 13 is a treasure. While not a doll, the knit dog which perfectly matches the little girl’s knit outfit is too precious! I feel I have peeked into someone’s Christmas day!

Knit and crocheted outfits were very popular during the 1940s and 50s, and the two Mary Hoyer dolls in their knit skating and skiing outfits are so very typical of their time. Even during the war years, a mother could manage a fine wardrobe for her child’s doll for Christmas, again demonstrating the love and caring that surrounds so many Christmas dolls. (Illus.)

Often during the holiday season, I have been called on to refurbish an antique doll to be given to a mother or grandmother who remembers their doll, but on which time has taken its toll. It is always touching to know that a doll has meant so much and that it is going to have a chance to do its magic again, to bring a smile and warm memories to its owner grown old. A doll being a gift twice to the same little girl is a very special Christmas doll.

When I first began collecting dolls in the early 1970s, my mother came for a visit. Two dolls which we had recently purchased were sitting on a loveseat, waiting to be cleaned and restrung. My mother commented how beautiful “that doll” is, and I thought she was talking about the French bebe, a rare Schmitt, in red on the left in illustration. I told her about the doll being especially rare and lovely and mentioned the closed mouth and big blue eyes. She told me she meant the other doll. That one was a much more common German doll with sleeping eyes and an open mouth. Yet that doll really “spoke” to her. I realized that the doll was of the exact period of when my mother was a child.

Her family was too poor for frivolous things; my mother did not have a doll. Yet that was the kind of commercial doll that she might have seen in a store window and admired, classic in its time, etched somewhere deep inside, an emotional awareness that decades later resurfaced. I gave my mother the doll that Christmas, her first Christmas doll. Now that she is gone, I have the doll back, but now, it will always be my mother’s doll.

Collectors can also be creative with their dolls, as evidenced by the crazy quilt made into a large Christmas stocking full of little gifts and topped off with a German bisque doll. Now that, too, is a Christmas doll! She is admired by a very unusual and early Steiff rod bear, whose head and limbs are joined with metal rods, a concept patented by Steiff in 1905. (Illus.)

And as December approaches, antique dealers will showcase special dolls for the holiday. Collectors may peruse these shops and auctions for treasures and once again on Christmas morning lucky little girls all over the world will find a Christmas doll under the tree, and lucky big girls will have chosen their Christmas dolls. I have no doubt the two wonderful girls in illustration will become someone’s Christmas dolls. The smaller doll is a wonderful Hertel & Schwab 163 googlie, a doll whose happy countenance is delightful. The larger doll is a Century Doll made by Kestner in Germany. She is a shoulder head bisque version of the American composition dolls of the 1920s. She is the type of doll, all-original and never played with, who very possibly was a Christmas doll, probably more expensive than the composition type, but likely was not played with because it was breakable. I think she will become a Christmas doll again this year.

So, then, what is a Christmas doll? Certainly it is a doll received as a Christmas gift, or maybe one dressed in Christmas or winter attire, or perhaps it is any doll who has shared the joys of Christmas day with its owner of any age at any time. With four granddaughters now, I think I will be in the market for five Christmas dolls this year.

Dorothy McGonagle is an internationally recognized author, lecturer, consultant, photographer, collector, dealer, and appraiser in the field with over 27 years of experience. Her published works include “[amazon_link id=”0875883125″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Dolls of Jules Nicholas Steiner[/amazon_link]” and “[amazon_link id=”0875884792″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]A Celebration of American Dolls from the Collections of the Strong Museum[/amazon_link],” as well as many other works. She belongs to a number of professional organizations, including the United Federation of Doll Clubs (UFDC), The Doll Collectors of America, Inc. (past president), the Yankee Doodle Dollers of Massachusetts (past president), the National Antique Doll Dealers of America, the Schoenhut Collectors’ Club, and JADE (Japanese-American Doll Enthusiasts). Dorothy is currently the specialist in antique dolls at Skinner, Inc.

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