Dolls: a trip back to childhood in Edinburgh

What does an ancient Egyptian relic have in common with a Barbie doll? The answer can be found in a centuries-old building on Edinburgh's royal mile -- the Canongate Tolbooth Museum, which is offering an exhibition of dolls from Georgian times to the space age through March 8, admission free.

The display of 146 dolls and five doll houses is based on the collection of the museum of childhood in Edinburgh, itself a rich potpourri of things we thought we outgrew. The doll exhibit begins with a glance of pre-Christian times: a surprisingly well-proportioned wooden doll (Egyptian, about 2000 BC), a clay doll with jointed arms and (Greek, about 400 BC), and several other reminders that children in every age are wonderfully childlike.

Dolls are small, and the entire exhibition is comfortably housed in a single large room. But its relevance goes beyond playthings to tell about social history and family relationships. The exhibition moves into high gear with a section on "Early developments: 1750-1850," showing the trend away from wood and into papier-mache, wax, and china. During this period of full-scale doll manufacturing industry emerged, mainly in Germany, and spread throughout Europe.

The exhibition traces the subsequent history through five more periods, including "The golden age of dolls: 1875-1900." Not before that time, suprisingly enough, was the baby doll popular, and its advent met a fair amount of resistance from parents, who thought of dolls only as adult-figured models. That was the age, too, of some canny commercialism. Dollmakers, awakening to the fact that parents, not children, do the buying, turned out lavish fashion-plate models that took mom's breath away and ingenous "automata" that walked and talked their way into dad's heart -- if he had the wherewithal to buy them.

Cost, in fact, became a problem, as one heart-rending corner of the exhibition reminds us. There, surrounded by cases of dolls for the well-to-do, are he so-called "emergent" or improvised dolls. Here is a doll made from a thrown-away shoe, with features gummed onto the heel and a tattered rag dress -- a quiet testimonal to the imagination and tenderness of a London slum child about 1890. Here, too, is a "scraps doll," jumbled together from junk during World War II, when dolls were almost impossible to obtain by rich or poor.

But play clearly has the upper hand here, and the exhibition helps trace some of our dearest notions. If you didn't know that the Teddy Bear came from a Washington Post cartoon in 1903 showing huntsman Teddy Roosevelt refusing to shoot a small bear cub, or that a golliwog came from a bestselling children's book in 1895, this is the place to learn. And, incidentally, to relieve a few moments of your own and mankind's childhood.

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