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A Guide to Doll Materials

Understanding, Identifying and Appreciating Doll Materials


If you know the material that a doll head is made with, you have the key to identifying and understanding the doll and the era in which it was made. This guide will help you identify, collect, and appreciate dolls according to the materials that they were made with. The material a doll is made from is determined from the material the doll head is made from, so that a bisque doll has a bisque head but can have a body made of another material. Presented in rough chronological order.

1. Wood Dolls

Early 1800s Wood Dolls
(c) Denise Van Patten
Wood dolls are one of the earliest known substances that dolls have been made from. Most wood dolls are carved, and few very early examples exist today. Very little wood doll production has taken place in the 20th century, but a few doll artists still work in wood today.

2. Wax Dolls

Pumpkin Head Wax Doll
(c) Denise Van Patten
Wax was the first molded substance that doll heads were made from (as opposed to carved). Wax is, unfortunately, fragile, and few of the earliest wax dolls survive today. Wax dolls were molded from at least the 1700s and were made through the 1800s; today, only doll artists use wax to make or enhance doll heads.

3. Paper Mache Dolls

Grenier Paper Mache Doll
(c) Denise Van Patten
Dolls made from Paper Mache could be easily molded and were more durable than their earlier wax predecessors. Paper Mache dolls were manufactured in Germany in great numbers in the early 1800s, and were made in one form or another (although in much smaller numbers) until the late 1800s as they were largely replaced by china and bisque dolls.

4. China Dolls

Antique China Doll Heads
(c) Denise Van Patten
Bisque dolls with a glazed finish are called porcelain dolls, more commonly known as china dolls. China dolls followed papier mache in the late 1840s and 1850s and were produced alongside bisque dolls until the very early 1900s. China dolls have a very stylized appearance to us today with their generally pale, untinted skin tones.

5. Bisque Dolls

Kestner Bisque Antique Doll
(c) Denise Van Patten
Bisque dolls took over papier mache as the preferred dollmaking material in the mid 1800s, and remained the favorite material to fashion doll heads until the advent of composition doll heads. Most of the classic German and French antique doll sought by collectors today are bisque dolls.

6. Celluloid Dolls

Celluloid Doll from Germany
(c) Denise Van Patten
Celluloid is the earliest plastic that dolls have been made from. Celluloid is not an ideal substance for making dolls as it is fragile and somewhat flammable. A very few celluloid dolls were made at the end of the 1800s; however, most were made from the early to mid 1900s.

7. Composition Dolls

Shirley Temple Composition Doll
(c) Denise Van Patten
Composition dolls were a revolution in doll production--they were marketed as "unbreakable" dolls coming on the heels of bisque dolls. Most dolls from the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s were composition dolls, including Mama Dolls, Shirley Temple Dolls, Judy Garland Dolls, and Nancy Ann Storybook Dolls.

8. Hard Plastic Dolls

Hard Plastic 1950s Ginny
(c) Denise Van Pattn
Many favorite dolls of the late 1940s and 1950s were made out of hard plastic. Some of the best known hard plastic dolls include Toni, Ginny, Saucy Walker, Cissette, Mary Hoyer, and Terri Lee.

9. Vinyl Dolls

Crissy Doll
(c) Denise Van Patten
If you are holding a currently produced vinyl doll in your hand, changes are it is made of vinyll plastic. Vinyl overtook hard plastic as the main material for doll heads in the late 1950s/early 1960s. One of the most famous vinyl dolls is Barbie; others include today's realistic baby dolls and most baby boomer dolls.
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