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National Costume Dolls

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Small cloth doll dressed in costume of Italy.

Small cloth doll dressed in costume of Italy.

Denise Van Patten

Introduction to National Costume Dolls:

When on vacation, especially in a foreign country, tourists like to buy souvenirs, and one of the most popular type of souvenirs are dolls dressed in the national costume of the country being visited. National Costume Dolls are often overlooked by major doll publications, because they are a fairly common type of doll, and they are hard to pigeonhole or categorize, since they have been made by so many companies. However, they are a doll collected, formally or informally, by many people.

Years of Production of National Costume Dolls:

Since the 1800s, doll makers have recognized that there is a market for dolls dressed in national costumes. French fashion dolls from the late 1800s can often be found in the national costumes of various French provinces, such as Brittany, and often the national costumes are found on "budget" styles of dolls, which indicates they were meant for mass consumption as souvenirs for tourists. Interest in national costume dolls picked up steam in the 20th century, and they are still ubiquitous today.

Companies That Produce National Costume Dolls:

Literally, hundreds of companies worldwide have produced national costume dolls. Most of these companies sent their dolls to market not emphasizing their brand name--after all, they weren't after repeat customers--and instead emphasized the country of origin or of costume of the doll. For this reason, many national costume dolls are poorly marked as to maker, or if the dolls are marked, then it is made by a little-known company and not a large player in the field such as Madame Alexander.

Materials:

I have seen national costume dolls made out of bisque, china, composition, papier mache, vinyl, hard plastic, celluloid, nuts, coconuts, seashells, cloth, and many, many other materials, In fact, national costume dolls can also be made of novelty materials such as seashells or coconuts, giving the purchaser a "two-fer" with the doll being made out of a native material as well. However, the vast majority of national costume dolls in the past 40 years have been made of hard plastic or vinyl.

Sizes of National Costume Dolls:

You can find miniature national costume dolls as small as 2"--however, you are unlikely to find a national costume doll for a tourist in a very large size--you rarely, in fact find them over 15"-17" in size, and the vast majority of them are often 12" or smaller. Why? Simply because tourists need to be able to pack the dolls in their suitcases to take them home!

Price Trends For National Costume Dolls and Collecting Tips:

National costume dolls were generally made in great quantities, and often (but not always) inexpensively to be an affordable souvenir with tacked on clothing. Additionally, most of the dolls were not played with or thrown away--instead they sat on shelves as mementos of happy trips. For these reasons, you can find the vast majority of national costume dolls (also called foreign travel dolls and tourist dolls) for prices between $10 and $30. Exceptions would be early bisque national costume dolls, dolls in finer, removable costumes, and dolls by known makers which are avidly collected (such as a Lenci doll from Italy in a national costume, or a Skookums from the United States, and some of the rarer Peggy Nisbet or Klumpe or Roldan dolls from Spain. Some earlier composition and celluloid dolls can also be valued higher, as can some early Japanese dolls made of gofun (an oyster paste).

For these reasons, national costume dolls are ideal for a collector on a budget who is looking for an interesting and broad category to collect in. Some collectors of national costume dolls try to get dolls from as many countries as possible. Others try to get as many costume variations as possible from a single country. Others will focus on a material and/or time period--say, celluloid dolls from France of the mid-20th century. The possibilities for these types of collections are endless, and not yet fully explored.

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