Essays

Exploring The History of Paper Dolls

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If I wasn’t reading as a kid, I was playing with dolls. I still find dolls fascinating and beautiful. I love the variety of dolls, from baby dolls to fashion dolls to artist’s mannequins. I love the rich history of dolls and how entwined doll history is with culture. One of the world’s first and most popular dolls, the paper doll, continues to thrive in new ways with doll enthusiasts of all ages. Since paper is such a delicate art form, not many whole pieces have survived history. However, paper art and paper dolls can be traced back thousands of years.

Historical Paper Arts

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

In Japan, early origami took the shape of figures in kimono. Paper art and doll making are historically linked in Japan. Hinamatsuri, or Doll’s Day, is celebrated on March 3 with expensive heirloom dolls crafted from wood, paper, and clay. The wayang puppets of Java and Bali have been in use 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 of Europe appeared in Slavic countries, where paper crafts continue to thrive. Paper cutting folk art, or wycinaki in Polish, began to appear around the 15th century. As popularity rose, more figures began to appear in the art. Wycinaki is and was part of home decor, toys, furniture, and gifts.

French jointed puppets, called pantins, were first fashioned after famous 17th century figures. This satirical figures were among the first mechanical toys in the west. Other common pantin figures were Commedia dell ‘arte characters, like Harlequin, Pulcinella, and Pierrot, the clowns. The early hand painted pantins were simplistic, but as printing technology progressed, more detail could be added to mass production pantins. Printed pantins and paper dolls had the advantage of intricate detail over their manufactured porcelain cousins. Mass produced pantins were printed on a sheet, much like current paper dolls, with limbs separate from the bodies. Each piece was to be cut out separately, then strings, brads, or other fastenings attached to limbs to make the dolls jump and dance. Early paper toys share a similar look to contemporary paper dolls, but even pantins, dressed up like their contemporary counterparts did not come with an assortment of paper fashions and accessories.

First Paper Dolls

In 1812, Boston-based toy company J. Belcher published The History Adventures of Little Henry, a small chapbook that included a paper doll set. These toy chapbooks were intended to help children apply the morality lesson of the short story by acting out the narrative. The detailed outfits and accessories were intentional, to show progression in decisions.

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

Toy company Mcloughlin Brothers was the number one American manufacturer of paper dolls, until the company was sold to Milton Bradley in 1920. Early McLoughlin Brothers paper dolls were ornate, woodblock printed dolls. The Mcloughlin Brothers’ dolls were also the first to implement tabbed clothing, as opposed to wax to attach clothing. Once magazines and newspapers caught on to the popularity of paper dolls, free paper dolls began appearing as advertisements. These paper dolls advertised the latest department store fashions, printed onto the paper so children could cut the dolls out. Certain advertisement paper dolls required children to save up labels to send away for the doll while others were packaged into goods, like the prize in a cereal box.

Fashion and Career Paper Dolls

Fashion paper dolls, showcasing the latest designer goods, became increasingly popular at the turn of the century. Teenagers in particular loved these fashionable dolls, as designer clothing was often out of reach of their budgets, but cheap paper dolls were not. Adults also collected designer and advertisement paper dolls as fashion inspiration for their own wardrobes. Discarded department store catalogues made excellent material for homemade paper dolls and clothing. These carefully crafted dolls and clothing are a kind of folk art, belonging almost exclusively to children. The catalogue doll might be cut around a full length model in a catalogue, with clothing ads that fit their silhouette and stubby tabs. Cardboard could be added for reinforcement. Cut and paste paper dolls could be made from paper scraps and catalogues with discarded lace and paper from Mother’s writing desk.

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

Between 1930 and the mid-1950s, paper dolls were at their height of popularity. Depression-era children were able to still collect paper dolls due to the cheapness of paper and readily available catalogues. Advertisement paper dolls during The Great Depression began to advertise more non-clothing items including soap, coffee, and household appliances. Comic books soared in popularity around this time, with toy makers looking to appeal to 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 in items like tin, rubber, fabric, and even glue. Since paper wasn’t rationed, paper dolls could continue to be made inexpensively, with plenty of detail. Even as late as the 1960s and 1970s, paper dolls provided more detail than mass-produced porcelain or plastic dolls made from molds.

Career-themed paper dolls have always stood beside the fashion-forward dolls. Think of Barbie and her million and one jobs. The Fluffy Ruffles comic strip and paper doll made her debut 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 for her. In 1940, The Brenda Starr comic strip debuted with a saucy paper doll line soon afterwards. As more women began working outside of the home, paper doll themes began stretching beyond fashion and “female” careers. Paper dolls let children play with fantasy. Dress up as a film star, a cowboy, or a ballerina!

The first Black paper doll on the mass market was the Torchy in Heartbeats comic series in 1950. The Torchy paper doll series had a modern, stylish 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 been experiencing at the time. It’s important to note that many paper doll sets portrayed non-white races in a derogatory and stereotypical way. Accessories like Native American headdresses were often included in costume sets. Today we know that racism and cultural appropriation, even in playthings, should not be permissible.

Modern paper dolls are made in much the same way as they were 100 years ago. Paper doll sets are often printed on on sheets with perforation for easy tearing/ cutting. Books of paper dolls often include trivia and other extras. Variations of the paper doll tend to be more popular these days. Felt, sticker, or magnetic dolls can be found in virtually any store that sells dolls.

In the early ’00s, virtual paper dolls like Stardoll and KiSS, meant countless hours of dress up fun. Fashion plate dolls are perfect for the budding fashion designer. Collectors still prefer traditional paper dolls, though. Vintage paper doll sets can be found on sites like eBay, Etsy, and at antique stores or estate sales. Or, you can always cut up those old Target ads and make some of your own.


Ready to live that doll collector life? Visit our American Girl archives for quizzes, memes, and more.

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