Collecting Articles and Features

From Prim And Proper To Fun And Frolic – Dolls from 1900-1910

From Prim And Proper To Fun And Frolic – Dolls from 1900-1910 by Sue Brewer

Armand Marseille 390 DollThis was a strange decade; the first few years were overshadowed by the death of Queen Victoria. She died in 1901, after sixty-three years on the throne, and initially people found it hard to adjust to the thought of a king, Victoria`s son Bertie, who was proclaimed Edward VII. Naturally, Edward was no spring chicken, he was already sixty-one when his mother died, and, however fond he was of his mother, must have been waiting for this moment for decades.

Although she was a reclusive old woman, her death plunged the whole world in shock, for Victoria had been greatly loved and admired; she was not just Queen of England, she was Empress to many far-flung lands. On the day of her funeral, it is said that even the prostitutes wore mourning (but presumably only for a short while!)

Edward inherited a kingdom which had grown accustomed to a righteous, majestic, staid monarch (even if Victoria had, as rumours persisted, taken a lover in the shape of dour Scotsman John Brown), but he soon set about changing things. He liked to party, enjoyed his food, loved his drink and adored the ladies – and he didn`t let the fact he that was married get in the way. His long-suffering wife was the delightful, deaf Alexandra. The jolly, fun-loving king became immensely popular, and though his reign was brief, the first decade of the 1900s was very much stamped with his personality. It was a time of change, not only in attitude but in many spheres of development, not least, the doll world.

DollsBy now, wax dolls which had been so common in the early and mid Victorian years were scarcely made, as manufactures realised the benefits of china, though makers such as Pierotti did continue the tradition for a couple more decades. This was really the era of the bisque doll. Bisque, an un-glazed form of porcelain, resembled human skin, and dolls became stunningly beautiful with large glass eyes, human hair or mohair wigs and delicate painting of lashes and lips. The German manufacturer Armand Marseille produced a doll which was to become a favourite for the next three decades – a pretty girl with the mould number 390 stamped on her neck. At first, she was issued with a body made from kid leather, later from wood or composition. As with many of the bisque dolls, the quality of the body seemed to deteriorate over the years, and later dolls often had more shapeless limbs as marketing became more and more intense.

DollsOne of the reasons that the 390 girl became so popular was that Armand Marseille understood the importance of mass-marketing, and was able to flood the market with his dolls. By altering height, eye colour, head size, wig length and wig colour, the 390 doll could vary her appearance enormously. She must have been a very accessible doll at the time, certainly if the numbers of the dolls which are still around today are anything to go by.

Naturally, there were many other German makers, such as Kammer & Reinhardt, Simon & Halbig, Heubach, Schoenau &Hoffmeister, and Kestner. In fact, the dolls poured from the factories, so causing the French manufacturers some concern. Eventually, companies such as Bru, Jumeau and several others banded together to form the Societe Francaise de Fabrication de Bebes et Jouets (S.F.B.J.) with the aim of increasing productivity, registering its trademark in 1905.

The 1900s must have been exciting times; they were a time of invention and development. Perhaps the most important achievement was that by Wilbur and Orville Wright when, on the seventeenth of December 1903, they made the first ever controlled power flight. The brothers took turns in attempting to get their flimsy biplane off of the ground, finally succeeding in making four flights, the longest of which lasted for fifty-seven seconds. By doing so, they opened up the world – today, just over a hundred years later, we think nothing of twelve-hour flights, and man has even journeyed to the moon.

Another innovation which changed our horizons was developed by Henry Ford. His 1908 Model T Ford, affectionately known as ‘Tin Lizzie’, was the first car to be produced in such quantity and at such an affordable price that it allowed motoring to be accessible to working-class people, not just the rich and affluent. Domestic life was made easier by the invention of the first electric washing machine, while the development of plastics, such as bakelite, would soon transform our lives. Young boys rushed to join the new Scout movement, formed by Baden-Powell in 1907, and three years later girls had their own organisation, the Girl Guides.

Wooden DollsIn 1905 the Dean`s Rag Book Company was formed, as a subsidiary of a much older publishing company. Initially, the intention was to provide for ‘children who wear their food and eat their clothes’ according to the rag book`s originator! Soon, though, they were producing rag dolls as well, which at first were printed as sew-it-yourself calico panels called ‘Knock-About Toys’, and included a Geisha doll, Red Riding Hood and ‘Dolly and her wardrobe.’ However, it wasn’t long before Dean’s were making the dolls themselves. One of the earliest of the Dean`s dolls was a huge, 24 inch rag doll baby which could wear the clothes of a two-year old, but perhaps the most popular Dean`s rag dolls from the era were Betty Blue and Curly Locks. They also produced dressing-up clothes for boys and girls.

Cloth dolls were manufactured by the Steiff company too, who nowadays are more famed for their teddy bears. Usually made from felt, these were often character dolls with glass eyes and stitched or painted mouths. One of the most famous cloth dolls of all time owes his origins to an early 1900s breakfast cereal – Sunny Jim, an old-fashioned gentleman, was a figure used to advertise Force wheat flakes. Later, from the thirties onwards, he appeared as distinctive rag doll. His pointed nose, elongated periwig and red jacket made him easily recognisable, and he continued to be made over the decades. The dolls were obtainable through Force makers, A.C. Fincken & Co., based in Hertfordshire. An early rhyme ran: ‘Vigour vim, perfect trim, Force made him Sunny Jim.’

DollsTwo classic children`s books were written during this decade – Beatrix Potter penned ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ in 1902, and just two years later, J. M. Barrie produced ‘Peter Pan`. Peter Rabbit, and characters from the follow-up books such as Squirrel Nutkin and Benjamin Bunny, are still much-loved by children today, while Peter Pan has been illustrated by numerous artists and has appeared in film, play and pantomime form many times. Proceeds go to London`s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children who own the copyright, donated to them by J. M. Barrie. Peter Pan and Tinkerbell dolls are made by various concerns, including Disney and Madame Alexander.

The German company Kammer and Reinhardt issued a ‘lifelike’ baby in 1909, allegedly based on the Kaiser as a child and sometimes referred to as the ‘Kaiser Baby‘, though most people think it was modelled on one of the director`s grandchildren. This wasn`t a pretty doll, he had a scowling, character face. The head was actually made by Simon and Halbig because Kammer and Reinhardt mainly produced doll bodies. Their important development was an innovative bent-limbed baby-doll body, which we are familiar with on so many dolls today, and which Kammer and Reinhardt used for their 1909 baby. The doll caused quite a stir at the time, as it was so different from the usual pretty girl dolls – baby dolls were most uncommon then, especially one which tried to capture the less-than-sunny nature of a grumpy child!

Many parents, however, couldn`t afford to buy bisque dolls for their children, and so they made them from rag or gave them the wooden, jointed dolls which had been popular for many years, and continued to be sold for a few more decades. Referred to as ‘Dutch Dolls’ or ‘Peg Woodens’, these simple dolls were often imported from Germany, and had oval faces, a wedge-shaped nose, painted hair and features, and were jointed at shoulders, hips and knees. Often, they were very crudely carved and painted, but for some children, a simple peg wooden was the only doll they would ever possess, and they treasured them.

The first decade of the twentieth century must have been enjoyable, at least for those who weren`t so poor that they had to beg and steal – but change was coming. Edward VII died in 1910, and four years later, a dreadful war changed the world forever. In the process, women gained their independence and freedom, as for the first time middle class women entered factories and offices, to replace the men battling in the trenches.


Dolls at WCN