Explore the history of paper dolls


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If I didn’t read when I was a child, I played with dolls. I always find the dolls fascinating and beautiful. I love the variety of dolls, from baby dolls to fashion dolls to artist mannequins. I love the rich history of dolls and how closely the history of dolls is tied to culture. One of the world’s first and most popular dolls, the paper doll continues to thrive in new ways with doll lovers of all ages. Paper being such a delicate art form, few whole pieces have survived history. However, paper art and paper dolls date back thousands of years.

Historical paper arts

The predecessors of the modern paper doll were different variations of paper art around the world.

In Japan, the first origami took the form of characters in kimonos. Paper art and doll making are historically linked to Japan. Hinamatsuri, or Doll Festival, is celebrated on March 3 with expensive heritage dolls made from wood, paper and clay. Wayang puppets from Java and Bali have been used since ancient times. Made of leather, wood or paper, these delicately carved puppets are used to tell the stories of Hindu folklore, local stories and legends and historical events.

The first paper dolls in Europe appeared in the Slavic countries, where paper craftsmanship continues to flourish. The popular art of paper-cutting, or wycinaki in Polish, began to appear around the 15e century. As popularity grew, more and more characters began to appear in art. Wycinaki does and was part of home decor, toys, furniture and gifts.

French articulated puppets, called pantins, were first fashioned after the famous 17e century figures. These satirical characters were among the first mechanical toys in the West. Other common puppet figures were the characters of the Commedia dell’ arte, such as Harlequin, Pulcinella and Pierrot, the clowns. Early hand-painted panties were simplistic, but as printing technology advanced, more detail could be added to mass-produced panties. Printed panties and paper dolls had the advantage of intricate detailing over their manufactured porcelain cousins. Mass-produced panties were printed on a sheet, much like today’s paper dolls, with limbs separated from the bodies. Each piece had to be cut out separately, then strings, brads, or other ties attached to the limbs to make the dolls jump and dance. Early paper toys share a similar look to contemporary paper dolls, but even the pants, dressed like their contemporary counterparts, were not accompanied by an assortment of paper clothing and accessories.

First paper dolls

In 1812, the Boston-based toy company J. Belcher published The historical adventures of little Henri, a small chapbook that included a set of paper dolls. These toy collections were intended to help children apply the moral lesson of the short story by acting out the story. The detailed outfits and accessories were intentional, to show the progression in the decisions.

The first commercially available paper doll was Little Fanny in 1810, from the British toy company S&J Fuller. In the Little Fanny series of books and dolls, Fanny is portrayed as a vain and pampered little girl who runs away to the park, only to have all her belongings stolen. She changes outfits and attitudes, going from a spoiled child to a humble girl who is content to read at home.

The McLoughlin Brothers toy company was the first American manufacturer of paper dolls, until the company was sold to Milton Bradley in 1920. The first McLoughlin Brothers paper dolls were ornate, wood-printed dolls. The Mcloughlin brothers’ dolls were also the first to feature tabbed clothes, as opposed to wax to fasten clothes. Once magazines and newspapers caught on to the popularity of paper dolls, free paper dolls began to appear as advertisements. These paper dolls advertised the latest department store trends, printed on the paper for children to cut out the dolls. Some promotional paper dolls required children to keep mailing labels for the doll while others were wrapped in merchandise, such as the prize in a cereal box.

Fashion and Career Paper Dolls

Fashionable paper dolls, featuring the latest designer goods, became increasingly popular around the turn of the century. Teenagers in particular loved these fashionable dolls, as designer clothes were often out of their budgets, but cheap paper dolls were not. Adults also collected designer and advertising paper dolls as fashion inspiration for their own wardrobes. Discarded department store catalogs were excellent material for paper dolls and homemade clothes. These carefully made dolls and clothes are a kind of folk art, belonging almost exclusively to children. The catalog doll can be cut around a full-length model in a catalog, with clothing listings that match their figure, and chunky legs. Cardboard could be added for reinforcement. Cut-and-glue paper dolls could be made from scraps of paper and catalogs with lace and paper discarded from Mother’s desk.

After the mass production of the paper dolls, they were fashioned after the celebrities of the time. Stage stars, silent film actresses, radio singers and public figures have all received the paper doll treatment. The first celebrity paper doll was modeled after Swedish ballet star Marie Taglioni in 1835 and was hand-coloured. Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Temple paper dolls remain among the most popular paper dolls on the market.

Between 1930 and the mid-1950s, paper dolls were at their peak. Depression-era children could still collect paper dolls due to the cheapness of paper and readily available catalogs. Advertising paper dolls during the Great Depression began to advertise more non-clothing items, including soap, coffee, and household appliances. Comics grew in popularity around this time as toymakers sought to attract more girls. Their solution was to include paper dolls with comics and produce paper doll sets based on popular comics.

During World War II, many toys had to stop production due to rationing of items like tin, rubber, fabric, and even glue. Since paper was not rationed, paper dolls could continue to be made inexpensively, with great detail. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, paper dolls provided more detail than porcelain or plastic dolls mass-produced from molds.

Career-themed paper dolls have always rubbed shoulders with fashion-forward dolls. Think of Barbie and her millions and one jobs. The Fluffy Ruffles cartoon and the paper doll debuted in 1906 as an independent career woman. Fluffy’s impact was so great that she had an actual fashion line at Macy’s department store and a contest named after her. In 1940 comic Brenda Starr debuted with a line of sassy paper dolls soon after. As more and more women began to work outside the home, paper doll themes began to expand beyond fashion and “women’s” careers. Paper dolls allow children to play with fantasy. Dress up as a movie star, cowboy or ballerina!

The first mass-market black paper doll was the Torchy in Heartbeats comic book series in 1950. The Torchy paper doll series had a sleek, modern wardrobe and fun historical costumes. Jackie Ormes, the cartoonist behind the Torchy series, included important and difficult topics such as racial and social injustice that many of her readers would have experienced at the time. It is important to note that many paper doll sets portray non-white races in derogatory and stereotypical ways. Accessories like Native American headdresses were often included in costume sets. Today we know that racism and cultural appropriation, even in toys, should not be allowed.

Modern paper dolls are made much the same as 100 years ago. Paper doll sets are often printed on perforated sheets for easy tearing/cutting. Paper doll books often include trivia and other extras. Variations of the paper doll tend to be more popular these days. Felt, self-adhesive, or magnetic dolls can be found at virtually any store that sells dolls.

In the early 2000s, virtual paper dolls like Stardoll and KiSS meant countless hours of dress-up fun. Fashion dolls are perfect for the budding fashion designer. However, collectors still prefer traditional paper dolls. Vintage paper doll sets can be found on sites like eBay, Etsy, and at antique stores or estate sales. Or, you can always cut out those old Target ads and create your own.

Ready to live this life of doll collector? Visit our American Girl Archives for quizzes, memes and more.


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