Piecing together a doll-filled past

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She's a doll detective. Miriam Formanek-Brunell studies dolls and bits of information about dolls to learn how children played with them years ago.

"The written record is kind of meager," says Ms. Formanek-Brunell, an American history professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Since children are too busy playing with toys to write about the experience, researchers must rely on what historians call "material culture."

"I looked at thousands of dolls and analyzed them," Formanek-Brunell says. Some were in museum or personal collections. Others were pictured in books and magazines, or advertised in old catalogs.

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"I began to see trends," she says. Many American families could not afford to give their daughters more than one fancy doll, which was usually imported from Europe and made of bisque (unglazed porcelain). They were fragile and expensive. American manufacturers made dolls of wood or metal, then gave them imported china heads and limbs. And if an arm snapped or a head broke, why, you could order a replacement.

"If you look at a Sears, Roebuck catalog, often you are not ordering whole dolls, but parts of dolls," she says. "It was kind of like ordering machine parts, with heads and bodies of different sizes and materials."

To learn how children played with dolls, Formanek-Brunell looked at diaries and autobiographies, and examined stories about dolls, such as one that Beatrix Potter (of "Peter Rabbit" fame) wrote titled "The Tale of the Two Bad Mice." She also discovered a study done in 1896 in which children were interviewed about how they played with dolls.

"At the end of the 19th century, the purpose of dolls was to teach rituals," the professor concludes. "How to have a tea party and keep a house."

The dolls were delicate, and their purpose was genteel. But that didn't mean little girls played with them gently. Sometimes the dolls were exuberantly mishandled.

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