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The History and Charm Of Paper Dolls
by Roma M. Welsh

Vintage Barbie Paper Doll
c. 1962

Many doll collectors have at least a few paper dolls as a part of their collection.  Paper dolls also appeal to collectors of paper ephemera.  But, most collectors know very little about the rich history and strong collectibility of paper dolls.  

Early History Of Paper Dolls

Paper dolls first appeared in Paris in the 18th century, during the reign of Louis XV.  The whimsical toys easily found a place in the gay atmosphere of royal French society. On the other side of the English Channel during this time period, proper British printers mixed fun and virtue by printing moral stories on the flat sheets that comprised the dolls!  Hence, from their earliest, paper dolls were used in a very different ways, and were accurate reflections of  very different cultures.  

Early European paper dolls often depicted actors and actresses, and the dolls were intended for use with toy stages.  Literary-minded youngsters enacted Shakespeare with casts of paper dolls, many with permanently printed costumes (which was common at this time).

In Pioneer America, paper dolls had more humble beginnings.  In Pioneer America, paper was a prized resource, and it was  rarely "wasted" on toys.  If children were lucky enough to get paper dolls, they treasured them between the pages of a book or in a carefully guarded box.  This later changed with the invention of mechanical grinding machines, which became a ready source for pulp paper.  As paper became less of a luxury, dolls were mass produced on inexpensive cardboard and became readily available to children..

Until the development of chroma-lithography printing, paper dolls were colored by hand.  In America, Civil War widows often earned money by embellishing the printed paper dolls.  For instance, they would create a series of beautiful brides--"the Belle Of the South, "The Belle Of the West, " and "The Belle of Saratoga."  

An interesting fact about early printed doll clothes was that they did not include tabs for dressing the dolls, as are common with paper dolls today.  Instead, children painstakingly attached the clothes with tiny drops of sealing wax.  They took care to press gently when they attached their clothes to their dolls, lest they tear the paper doll.

Fashions For Historic Paper Dolls

Early paper dolls were available in various stages of modesty.  Some dolls like the European actors came with permanently printed clothes. Others were designed to wear multiple layers of clothes, wile others had printed underwear and required only outerwear.  By the 1800s most commercial paper doll clothes featured tabs.  Handmade clothes for paper dolls quickly adapted this new, more convenient fashion. 

Homemade paper wardrobes often rivaled the silken fashions worn by real ladies and gentlemen.  Small artists used bits of cloth, lacy Valentines, tissue paper and magazine pictures to craft beautiful ball gowns.  Children often protected this delicate finery with cardboard support.  Young ladies of the 19th century earned spending money by selling such unique creations.  A paper doll pamphlet from 1856 described a girl who financed her education through the sale of original paper dolls.

Paper Dolls In Magazines

At the turn of the century, department stores discovered that paper dolls were the ideal fashion advertisement.  Specially designed dolls promoting "prêt-a-porter" gowns and new patterns appeared in ladies magazines such as the Delineator, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Ladies World, McCalls, Pictorial Review and Woman's Home Companion.  The paper dolls from these magazines are sought-after by paper doll collectors today.  Additionally, eager editors of newspapers began to realize the appeal of paper dolls, and they began to feature paper dolls in newspaper supplements as well.

Celebrities as Paper Dolls

As the century progressed, paper dolls soon began to depict real life celebrities such as Ava Gardner, June Allyson, Tyrone Power, Betty Hutton, Claudette Colbert, Greer Garson, Sonja Henie, Mary Martin, Judy Garland and many others.  These paper dolls are extremely highly sought after by today's paper doll collectors and are among the hardest to find.  

Collecting Paper Dolls:  Tips on Value, Collecting and Maintenance

Keep in mind that uncut paper doll books are worth twice as much as those that have been cut, even if the cutting was done well and the dolls are in good condition.  If you have all the costumes and accessories that came with the paper doll, the value is also greatly increased.  

Air is the worst enemy that paper dolls have.  The first rule for any collector of paper dolls is to keep the dolls in some type of protective covering.  An inexpensive plastic food bag will work (but, DO keep in mind that in humid climates moisture can get into a plastic bag and molds can ruin the paper dolls).  There are also glass coverings that many collectors use--especially good are archival glass frames that can be found at archival supply houses.

Many collectors and dealers have mixed reactions to any sort of mending or cleaning of paper dolls.  Some suggest that leaving a paper doll in its original condition is always best.  Others disagree and feel that paper dolls can be cleaned and mended if great care is used.  DO keep in mind that any sort of cleaning or mending of paper dolls DOES lessen the intrinsic value of the dolls.

Why Collect Paper Dolls?

Collecting paper dolls is fun!  Whether a collector is attracted to fashions, personalities, modern characters or animal dolls, there are paper dolls for every type of collector.  Paper dolls can be collected very inexpensively--many modern paper dolls are available for free downloads on the Internet, and many are available for free in doll magazines.  For both the young and young at heart, paper dolls are a wonderful way to pursue old fascinations, start a new collection or sub-collection, or simply remember childhood joys.   

Paper Doll Links:

Paper Doll Links at About:  Lots of Free Print-Out Paper Dolls

Paper Doll Publications

Tom Tierney's Paper Dolls

Roma M. Welsh  Is a collector of dolls and paper dolls who lives in Central New York.  She is a member of the Heritage Doll Club, and has written numerous articles for "The Dolly Digest." RomaMay is also an About.com Forum Host for this site!


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Article, Graphics Copyright © 2001 Denise Van Patten

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©Roma M. Welsh 2000
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