Readers who were children during the 1950s may well have fond memories of a very rare type of doll – the Beauty Skin. Made by Pedigree, these lovely dolls were certainly not rare at the time. On the contrary they were very popular, especially with young children, because they were so soft and cuddly. Sadly, though, the dolls had a fault – they tended to disintegrate after a few years of play. Pedigree Beauty Skin dolls first appeared in the late 1940s, and were popular until the mid-1950s. They came in four sizes, but the smallest had a rubber head, unlike the hard plastic of the larger sizes. These rubber-headed dolls were 9” high, while the hard plastic headed versions were 14”, 16” and 20”.
Although their heads were hard plastic, their bodies were made from a soft thin rubbery latex material and their limbs were of a similar substance, stuffed with kapok. They had pretty faces, often with flirty eyes, and most had moulded hair. Gradually, after lots of loving and cuddles, the latex would split or turn brittle, and the kapok would emerge, leaving a split and empty arm. Eventually, the dolls would be so damaged that they would be thrown away, which is why they are so rare today. Some people tried to stop the splits with sticking plaster, but this was a disastrous thing to do, because once stuck to the latex it could never be removed. It would turn grubby and unsightly. Sadly some owners of the dolls still resort to this method of stopping the kapok emerging, today, but it is not recommended.
If you are lucky enough to own one of these dolls, but it has split, then the best thing to do is to place a soft garment on the doll – cardigan or leggings, depending on where the split is – and then handle it as little as possible. Just leave it alone, and hope that it doesn’t get worse. At the time, Pedigree recommended that talcum powder should be rubbed in to the latex, but I am wary of this treatment, unless the doll is actually sticky, as it could dry out the latex even more. Sun, warmth and the rigours of handling played havoc with that delicate skin, and modern central heating dries them out, too. (Most people in the fifties didn’t have to worry about central heating; they made do with a coal fire downstairs and cold bedrooms!)
I called my first Beauty Skin baby Jeannie, and loved her very much, but eventually she was so damaged, I couldn’t play with her. So when I was asked what I would like for Christmas – I must have been about six – I asked for another soft doll, just like Jeannie. I found Isabelle on Christmas morning wearing a white satin dress, lying in a little blue-draped metal crib. I loved Isabelle dearly, and I had her for many years, even though her right arm slowly, but completely, disintegrated. I used to take her on holiday with me, and she rode in my doll’s pram. Eventually the day came when my mother decided I was ‘too big’ for dolls, and so most of my babies had to go. Isabelle had to be put into the dustbin – no-one would want a doll with a perished arm – though Mum kindly offered to do it for me, knowing how much I loved that doll.
When I started collecting dolls, I searched everywhere for a Beauty Skin, and kept a lookout at all the doll fairs, but no luck. Then one day, about six years ago, my daughter and I visited our local Collectors’ Centre. Suddenly I saw her pick up a doll from a table, and turn to me in triumph. She had found me a Pedigree Beauty Skin! Apart from one tiny crack in the rubber skin on the palm of one hand, she was perfect, and was the first one I had seen since my beloved Isabelle was thrown in the dustbin all those years ago. She is slightly larger than my original Isabelle, and her face is a little different, but her fingers, her toes, the way her moulded hair is shaped into little curls around her forehead, are just as I remembered. My Beauty Skin wears her original white satin-edged cotton romper suit, and takes pride of place in my doll cabinet. Now, though, she normally has a light cotton dress and jacket placed over the top of her romper, just to ensure that when she is handled no damage can get to her skin.
A couple of years later, my daughter came hurrying over to me at a doll fair, to say she had found another, smaller, Beauty Skin! This one was just 9” high, and was immaculate, with a soft head, rather than the hard plastic head of the larger-sized Beauty Skin babies. Still boxed and wearing her blue dress, bonnet and socks, she must have been ex-shop stock. Then, recently, I came across yet another large Beauty Skin. This one, although not in such perfect condition as our other doll, is, I believe, unplayed with, but poor storage has caused her to disintegrate on one thigh. However the facial colouring is wonderful, with cheeks as pink as the day they were painted. She is 16” tall, wears her original lilac and pink romper suit and lacy net socks, and comes with her box and even the delightful letter which Pedigree gave to all the new young ‘mothers’ of Beauty Skin babies.
This delightful ‘hand-written’ letter reads:
‘My Dearest Mummy, I love you,
I hope that you will love me too.
Be careful not to let me fall,
I am a Baby – after all!
To keep me always fresh and sweet,
Just sponge me over, top to feet,
Then gently dry and powder me,
And I’ll be clean as clean can be,.
I’m ready Mummy Dear for fun,
And go to sleep when play is done.
In fact I am a Perfect Pet,
The sweetest Babe you’ve ever met.’
Her box bears a label which reads: ‘Pedigree Beauty Skin doll. Series 16. R16/B. Silk romper, socks and voice. Made in England by International Model Aircraft Ltd.’ Pencilled on the label is the selling price, 31/6. The Pedigree catalogue for 1955 contains several different versions including a girl with ‘brushable hair’. The retail price for a plastic-headed Beauty Skin began at 18/11d for a 14” version ‘with napkin’, while 16” dolls began at 28/6d and 20” versions cost from 36/3d upwards, depending on the outfits. Beauty Skin dolls could be bought wearing a romper, silk dress, nightie, sunsuit, or organdie frock
A few years later, the Caselloid/Palitoy company produced some kapok-stuffed dolls too, which they referred to as Petalskin. Petalskin dolls seemed to be made of a more durable substance than Beauty Skin. Some are very rubbery, and many versions are easier to find today. Amongst the kapok-stuffed Petalskins was an 18” tall girl with a mohair wig. This girl was dressed, most unusually, in a plastic dress and matching bonnet, and though at the time these clothes would have been soft and supple, age has made them hard and stiff. A series of Palitoy Petalskin dolls were issued in the late 50s/early 1960s, with a kind of vinyl skin. A leaflet from the time reads: ‘Dolls to delight you, dolls to excite you. In Petalskin vinyl from the Palitoy nursery.’
One popular style of Petalskin, or ‘flexible vinyl’, doll was known as Lindy. Lindy had moulded hair which was in a ponytail style, and a ribbon threaded through a hole in her head. This doll came in Springtime or Summertime versions, wearing either pretty floral print dresses or plain cotton with ribbon trim, socks and shoes.
Many of the Petalskin dolls bore labels which stated:
‘Your new dolly will get as soiled as you during the playtime hours. Wash it as carefully as you do yourself, using soap and water. No harm can come to your Vinyl petal skin doll and to have clean playthings is hygienic. Should the blush on the face become faint from constant washing, a little rouge will soon restore those rosy cheeks. Take good care of your new playmate.’
A famous doll by Palitoy is Patsy, who appeared in several guises in the 1950s/60s, including a rubbery version with a hard plastic head and another made of a heavy vinyl. In the leaflet, she is advertised as a Petalskin version, who likes to be bathed, powdered and have a ‘little of mummy’s rouge’ placed on her cheeks. Several other dolls appear in the leaflet, labelled as Petalskin, including a large ‘Wonder Baby’, 21” tall, and several pretty dolls with rooted hair; Betsy, who came in four sizes, just wearing a nappy; 16” Carol, wearing a dress with a large collar, and the ‘Sunday Best’ series of dolls which came in four sizes, ranging from 11” to 18”. These were dressed ‘in pretty frocks with nylon knickers and socks with ribbon bows.’
Petalskin dolls are pretty, the skin texture and translucence is appealing, but I find that they don’t have the vulnerable attraction of the Pedigree babies with their thin, latex skin. For me, as the Pedigree Beauty Skin dolls were so much part of my childhood, they are very special and I will continue to seek them out. One day I hope to find the 14” dolls which have the faces of my beloved Jeannie and Isabelle.
Beauty Skin and Petalskin by Susan Brewer (follow Sue on Twitter @bunnypussflunge)