Playthings from the past. Wenham Museum's doll collection chronicles `the golden age of toymaking'

A mere glance is proof enough. ``Miss Columbia'' is not your ordinary doll. The baggage tags that stud her lace-collared cloak are from places as distant as the Orient. And the trunk she stands on is covered with labels from Salt Lake City, Denver, and Los Angeles. Behind this wearable itinerary is a story that began in the 1870s, when Elizabeth Richards Horton, a native of Wenham, moved to Boston, bringing along a small family collection of dolls. The neighborhood children would often visit her home and play with the dolls. One day they asked Mrs. Horton if her dolls could be used for a school fundraiser. She consented.

Impressed by the idea that a few dolls could successfully raise money, Horton decided to increase her collection and use it to raise funds for children's charities. She began to solicit dolls from friends and missionary stations around the world. Word spread that the ever-increasing collection was enriching charities both at home and abroad, and Horton asked royalty in Europe and the Orient for dolls. They responded and the collection grew. It is now estimated that the dolls have earned more than $100,000 for children's charities over the years.

Since its installation in the Wenham Museum over three decades ago, the collection has grown to include more than 1,000 dolls. Made of such materials as wax, paper, rags, and unglazed porcelain (or bisque), the dolls reflect the tastes of doll-lovers since the mid-1800s.

France's bisque Jumeau doll, for example, was a favorite of ``the yuppies of that day,'' says Lorna Lieberman, curator of the collection. Americans who could afford to travel in Europe would often return with the famous ``Parisienne,'' or ``lady-doll,'' manufactured by the Jumeau company in the mid-19th century. Petite, easy to carry, and fashionably dressed, the dolls were a favorite of women of leisure.

Along with Jumeau, other French companies helped establish France's reputation for making beautiful rather than technically perfect dolls. The Bru company also made a version of the ``lady-doll'' but was most famous for its ``b'eb'es.'' The b'eb'e was modeled on a child aged 8 to 12 and had movable joints.

German dolls were also popular with the well-to-do. Though often plainer than a French doll, the German doll usually had the technically correct body and arms. Despite their different emphases and the natural rivalry that resulted, French and German dollmakers were not entirely independent. German dollmakers often supplied the French with porcelain dolls' heads, and often a French company would simply reclothe a sturdy, well-constructed German doll that it had commissioned.

Many of the German dollmakers that conducted trade with France were in southern Germany, particularly around Sonneberg, which was the main exporting area. Simon & Halbig was known for exporting dolls' heads, and Kammer & Reinhardt for exporting entire bodies, many of which were modeled after children or storybook characters.

Technological advances in dollmaking, partly a result of the Industrial Revolution early in the 19th century, encouraged the production of less expensive dolls aimed at a less affluent market. The dolls mass-produced by Simon & Halbig and Armand Marseille were of good quality, yet affordable to the less privileged child. Doll exhibitions became more frequent, with a golden age for dolls and toymaking occurring between the 1880s and 1910.

Vintage paper dolls, once relatively cheap, are now considered valuable antiques. The delicate, pastel-colored dolls displayed at the Wenham Museum are part of a Bommier collection called ``Les Fleurs Anim'ees.''

The same is true for rag dolls. While not valued as highly as the porcelain dolls, they are nevertheless important in American folk culture. Literally made of rags, one type might have been used as a less privileged child's plaything. Another, smaller type might have adorned a sewing box or needle case. Rag dolls became more attractive and more popular when technological advances in the textile industry made them easier to manufacture. Ladies' magazines also began to supply rag doll patterns.

Across the channel, English dollmakers were making wax dolls. In the Wenham Museum's collection, these dolls are even plainer than those from Germany, are simply but neatly dressed, and have smooth, pale faces.

A small collection of ``artist dolls'' is one of America's contributions to the international assortment. At a time when the reproduction of existing dolls was popular, these dolls were prized as originals. Elaborately sewn cloth dolls resembling famous historical figures were the work of Dorothy Wendell Heizer, who worked out of Santa Barbara, Calif., in the 1940s.

And included among the dolls of Chicago-based Roberta Bell is a model of George Washington Carver.

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