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Dolls are among the earliest known toys, and have been made from a variety of materials. Most early dolls were made of wood, but by the eighteenth century, wax, china and bisque were commonly used for dolls’ heads and limbs, in combination with cloth bodies.
These doll parts were often quite expensive to produce, so only the wealthy could afford these professionally made dolls. Rag, paper, wool and other household materials were used for making dolls in the home.
Advances in manufacturing techniques in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries enabled the doll industry to use new materials and processes. Doll manufacturers were continually trying to find ways to produce cheaper, lighter, more hygienic and more hardwearing materials. The formulas they created were often closely guarded secrets.
Traditional materials used in doll making such as wood, china and cloth were replaced by plastics and man-made fibres. Mass-produced dolls were cheaper and more efficient to produce, and only a few specialists continued to make hand-made dolls.
Today, individual doll makers and artists use traditional techniques as well as using modern materials to create their dolls. There are still manufacturers of doll parts made in the traditional ways that supply the doll making craft.
Early dolls were called stump or tocke dolls. Tocke means block of wood in German. They had no arms or legs and were carved out of a single piece of wood. They were later known as poupards and were said to represent babies.
Early English wooden dolls were intricately carved and covered with a thin layer of plaster and varnish. Later these carvings became cruder and less individual as the dolls became more widely produced.
Poured wax doll heads were made by pouring molten wax into moulds and pouring off the excess before it sets, leaving a shell of wax. Eyes were then cut out from the mould and hair was inserted. Solid wax doll heads were carved out of blocks of wax or molten wax set in moulds.
Wax-over-composition was a technique that was used to add to the appearance of the doll heads and reduce manufacturing costs. The composition moulds were dipped into molten wax. These dolls often have cracked faces because the two materials have expanded and contracted over time. The wax that is used in this process was usually bleached beeswax with colouring added to it.
Cloth and Rag
Cloth and rag dolls are made in many different ways. Home-made dolls have long been easy to make out of cloth and rag found in the home.
From the 1920s to the 1940s there was a trend for commercially produced dolls made out of felt, velvet and stockinet. Makers such as Chad Valley, Norah Wellings, Kathe Kruse and Lenci produced dolls made of these materials. Stockinet is a finely woven cloth. The material was stretched over a papier-mache base to make dolls. This could then be painted to add the features of the doll.
Paper dolls or cut out dolls were mass-produced in the nineteenth century following the development of print techniques. They appeared in newspapers and journals and were also often produced as advertisements. Just like rag dolls, they were often made in the home.
In the early twentieth century, ‘composition’ became a popular material for dolls, as it was cheap and easy to produce. The basic method involved a pulped wood mixture that was moulded under pressure into the required shape. The mould was then varnished and painted.
As the process became mechanised, it became possible to mass produce dolls. Many manufacturers had secret formulas for their type of ‘composition’, which sometimes included adding china, cloth or wax.
Glazed China and Porcelain
These dolls were made using a clay mixture that was poured or pressed into plaster moulds of two or three different sections. This was given three separate firings and two layers of paint and glaze. They have moulded hairstyles that followed the fashions of the time.
Bisque dolls were made from the same material as glazed china or porcelain. After the mixture was set it was removed from the mould, fired, and then coloured. It was fired again and left unglazed with a matt surface.
Celluloid is made from cellulose nitrates and camphor. It was developed in the US in 1867 by the Hyatt Brothers. The mixture was put into two metal moulds of the doll and steam or hot air was applied to melt the mixture so it fitted the shape of the mould. The two halves were stuck together and the doll could be painted once it had cooled.
Although considered hygienic, easy and cheap, celluloid is also extremely flammable. It was gradually replaced by other forms of plastic, such as vinyl.
Vinyl is an inflammable plastic containing hydrocarbon compounds. The development of vinyl allowed for much more flexibility and was lighter and more hardwearing.
It also meant that, for the first time, hair could be threaded through the dolls head rather than a wig being stuck on or individual hairs inserted. Vinyl is still the most popular choice for dolls being manufactured today.
This text was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website. It has been republished here in order to reach a wider audience.