Little Previously Known About Viola Dolls
That happened recently when, out of the blue, I was contacted by Violet Joy, the niece of Robert Viola, founder of the Viola Dolls factory in New York, owned and operated by Robert Viola. There is very little information about this doll factory available. The most I could turn up was a small entry in The Collector's Encyclopedia of Dolls by the Colemans:
Viola Doll Company 1917 - 26. New York City. Manufactured Dolls.
1918: Composition-head dolls ranged in heights 12 to 24 inches (30.5 to 81 cm) priced 50 cents to $5.00.
New Information About Viola Dolls
Violet Joy provided a wealth of information on Viola Dolls, including the background of its founders and some original photos of the factory and its workers in operation.
In June, 1907, Robert Viola and two of his brothers, Peter and Annibale came to the United States from Palermo, Italy. Robert Viola was 24 years old at the time. Unlike many other immigrants of that time, the Violas came from a wealthy family with land holdings in Italy that grew lemons, olives and grapes.
Family Opens Doll Factory In New York
The Viola brothers settled in New York City. In April of 1910, the rest of the family arrived. Viola Joy's father, Robert's little brother Lorenzo arrived in 1916 and was uninvolved in the family doll making business (he was a music professor).
There is no record of how the family became interested in doll making; however, the family has always had history and interest in the arts. The doll factory opened in New York, and by 1917 was producing dolls (the earliest record is from 1917; it is possible the factory opened slightly before that).
Viola Dolls: A Family Affair
Many members of the family worked at the factory, including brothers Annibale and Peter, in the production of the dolls. Viloa's aunts Margaret, Ceccina and Margie ran the doll dressmaking department.
Family Member Later Works For Effanbee
The faces of the dolls were painted by Margaret's husband, Dominick Fiorentino, who later went on to work for the Effanbee Doll Company (which started out as Fleishaker & Baum). Dominick was later, in 1942, featured in an article in The New York Journal newspaper. It showed Dominick at work painting Dy Dee Dolls at the Effanbee Doll Company.
Over 50 Varieties of Dolls: Composition, Celluloid
Viola reports that there were over 50 varieties of Viola Dolls (you can see many of the varieties in one of the original photos). She reports both composition and celluloid dolls, but from the looks of the photos it appears there may have also been some bisque dolls. In 1918, Viola Dolls advertised the dolls as "...including sleeping-eyed dolls, with or without wigs, cork-stuffed bodies, fancy sewn dresses and dressed jointed celluloid dolls."
In 1923, the company produced "Mama Dolls with sleeping eyes," with the usual composition heads and limbs, open and closing eyes and "mama" crier.
The Factory Closes: Memories of Robert Viola
In 1926 (possibly the end of 1925) the factory closed. The family has no record of the reason for the closure, but the family speculates that Robert simply missed the rural life he had led on an estate in Italy. When the factory closed, Robert bought a farm in upstate New York, near Monticello.
Viola recalls that "Uncle Robert was a very colorful man. Hew was handsome and intelligent and very much a character. He loved dogs and they were his constant companions in later life. He died at age 90."
Unfortunately, the family does not have any Viola Dolls in their possession. Both Viola Joy and I hope that a doll in its original Viola Doll box, or with its original tag will turn up after this article is published. The dolls from Viola in New York should not be confused with the bisque antique dolls marked "Viola, Made in Germany"--according to The Collect's Encyclopedia of Dolls, these dolls were made in Germany and distributed by another company.
Do You Have a Viola Doll?
If you do have a Viola doll which can be authenticated as coming from the New York factory, please e-mail me at email@example.com.
See Larger Photos of the Viola Doll Factory
Also, visit our Photo Gallery of Viola Doll Factory, which provides some larger detailed images.
This article would not have been possible without the very generous sharing of information and photographs that Violet Joy, niece of Robert Viola provided, and I thank her for that.