DEAR HELAINE AND JOE: Attached are three photos of an antique doll. Family legend says it belonged to my husband’s great grandfather, who was born in Easton, Pa., on Christmas Day in 1843. The first of my husband’s family came to America 20 years after the Mayflower, so the doll could be older. The face and neck appear to be porcelain and the clothing and body are leather. Have you ever seen anything like our doll before and do you know anything about ours?
— M & T. C.
DEAR M & T. C.: First of all, we want to dismiss the reference to “20 years after the Mayflower” as not being feasible because dolls of this type were simply not made in the 1640s. Approximately 200 years had to pass before children were entertained by playthings such as the one in today’s question.
This is commonly called a china head doll, and it is said they first appeared about 1836. The dolls came in a variety of styles and had wood, cloth or kid (leather) bodies. Some had porcelain extremities (arms and legs); others had less detailed limbs made from wood or leather.
The size range was three to 40 inches. Most examples had painted black hair, but a few did have bald pates covered with wigs. It is interesting that collectors tend to classify these china head dolls by their hairstyles. For example, dolls from the 1840s often have their hair styled into a bun, braid or rolled at the back of the doll’s head.
The 1850s saw the wigs mentioned earlier, but the doll may also have what is called a “covered wagon” hairstyle. For this, there is a center part with a flat top and curls around the head. In the 1860s, the hairstyle might be called a “Jenny Lind” — a middle part with painted hair pulled back into a bun with a high forehead.
The variations seem to be endless. There is the “Queen Victoria” hairstyle (her ears are showing), “Lydia,” “Sophia Smith” (straight sausage curls), “Alice in Wonderland” (headband), “Countess Dagmar” (elaborate curls, even on forehead), “Mary Todd Lincoln” (pulled back, snood), “Adelina Patti” (rolled hair with extensive curls) and “Dolly Madison” (curls and molded ribbon), just to skim the surface.
We really cannot see the hairstyle on the doll clearly enough to make an exact designation, but we feel that it is from the 1840/1850 period and that M. & T.C.’s family history is probably correct or nearly so. But the last 160 or 170 years have not been kind to this doll. She has been through a lot, and the pictures seem to indicate she is all original but in three or four pieces.
It is extraordinary she still has on her original oil cloth clothes, but the skirt may be a later repair or addition. We really feel like she should be kept as a family heirloom and left alone — no need to remove the twine from around her waist or the thread around her neck. No need to reattach the head to the rest of her body. Just leave her as is. Cherish her because she is priceless. Monetarily, her value is in the $250 to $350 range.