Dolls have been a favorite toy for a large part of civilized human history. They are used to promote love, good luck charms, or as family heirlooms. No matter the the reason, dolls are still an important piece of worldwide culture and fashion.
But, it can be hard to appreciate dolls without understanding their history. Keep reading, and we'll give you an in-depth look of how dolls have evolved from the ancient ages to the Barbie dolls that are massively sold today.
Ancient cultures and dolls
Girls have used dolls for thousands of years. In Ancient Egyptian tombs, pottery dolls were found. Ancient Greece dolls were made of wood or baked clay. Some dolls have moveable limbs. However, both Greek and Roman girls dedicated their dolls to goddesses once they grew up.
In the Middle Ages, girls would still play with dolls. 15th-century German woodcuts would show doll makers at work. By the 16th century, wooden dolls with miniature clothes were still popular during this era.
Doll houses originated in Germany in 1558. The doll houses were popular toys for wealthy children in the 17th-18th century. However, the dolls in this time were used for display and not used as toys.
But in the 17th-18th-century girls continued to play with rag, wax or wooden dolls. Doll houses were named baby houses and dolls were called toys babies. By the end of the 18th century, they were called dolls.
Where Was The Oldest Doll?
The earliest dolls were made from materials such as stone, clay, bone, wax, leather, or ivory. Archaeological evidence has found out that dolls are the oldest known toy. Wooden paddle dolls were found in Egyptian tombs in the early 21 century BC.
Dolls with removable clothing and limbs date back to 200 BC. Archaeologists discovered Greek dolls created out of clay. Stuffed animals and rag dolls were also popular, but none of these examples survived to the current day.
Traditional African dolls were used as playthings, but also have ritual and magical value. There wasn’t a defined line between toys and spiritual dolls. In some ancient cultures, dolls that were used in rituals were also given to children.
Who Invented Dolls?
The first doll was invented during the BC era, so it's difficult for historians to trace back to a single inventor. However, in the modern era, Ruth Handler invented the first doll in 1959. She invented Barbie after her daughter Barbara. Barbie was then shown in the American Toy Fair in New York, where she was introduced to the world.
Other dolls such as the American Girl Doll brand was sought through by the Pleasant Company. These dolls were invented to show the deeper side of American history through each doll. While it’s hard to tell who solely invented dolls, there are a lot of people that have paved the way for future generations of dolls to be produced.
African dolls served two purposes. They were toys, and they were also charms to support fertility. Based on tradition, the mother would give her doll to her daughter. Children would receive their dolls either due to rituals or as heirlooms as they were valued in African culture.
Dolls in Ghana
Ndebele, people would have dolls with colorful clothes and houses. They have beads on the dolls on their similar clothes. When a man falls in love, he places the doll near the house of the woman he’s in love. This shows that he is interested in marrying her, and she keeps the doll once they are married.
In Greece, dolls were made of bone, cloth, ivory, jewels, silver, gold, and other metals. There are objects created out of bronze. Small girls in Rome dedicated their dolls, balls, and hoops to the goddesses, including Diana, who was known as the Roman’s version of Artemis.
Known as ningyo ("human form), dolls were apart of Japan's traditional arts and crafts. Some of the dolls represent children while others would represent heroes, warriors, and the imperial court. Because there are some Japanese myths that do go back, there are some dolls that represent gods, demons, and goddesses.
Also, there are Japanese that depict the average person living in Japan. Most of these dolls have held Japanese tradition and are still designed to do so. Japanese dolls have multiple purposes such as gift giving to relatives, festival celebrations, friends, and household shrines.
Japan has a festival called the Hinamatsuri ("doll festival"). The dolls were made as souvenirs or dolls created from local crafts. Humanoid figures were made to be present in Japanese culture during ancient times.
The Kokeshi dolls were also popular throughout Japanese culture. They were traditionally made to be guardians of children but also become popular among collectors and Japanophiles.
kokeshi doll history dates back to the 19th century, where the dolls were produced by the kijishi, near the Togatta Onsen. Traditional Kokeshi dolls have a cylindrical body and a round shaped head. Modern kokeshi dolls have a rounded shape and more vibrant colors than their predecessors.
In 1900, the first Russian dolls were introduced during the Paris World Exhibition. The Russian nesting doll dates back to early China. For instance, the Chinese designed the dolls to be wrapped in multiple containers. The doll starts with one large box and several smaller boxes inside of the doll.
Savva Mamontov was a Russian patron of the Arts who had surrounded himself with artists that were interested in the revival of traditional Russian folk art. After speaking to his wife about Japanese dolls, he inspired his artists to create the new Russian dolls in this appearance.
Sergei Maliutin, who was apart of Mamotov's group of artists, created the 7 layers for the dolls. The top layer would be the mother, and the smaller dolls would represent her children. Each of the children was holding different items symbolizing Russian peasantries such as hens, scythes, or bowls. You can find the first model of Russian dolls in the Museum of Toys in Zagorsk.
In the United States, American Girl Doll was popular in the 1980s. Like Barbie, these dolls represented the American culture and provided entertainment from girls to young adults. Usually, American dolls were produced from cotton, plastic, etc, and would be mass produced to meet the evergrowing demand for high-quality beauty dolls.
Now, there are dozens of doll museums spread throughout the United States. There are museums in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California, all dedicated to show you the history of American Dolls and their potential plans for future designs.
American Girl Doll History Timeline
In the U.S. American Girl Doll was one of the first dolls to represent America. The first dolls were created in 1986, by Pleasant Rowland. Rowland wanted to create dolls for girls because there were no dolls that supported girlhood. Thus, the first American Girl Doll was born.
Pleasant Company made three 18-inch dolls each of which was from a different period in U.S. History.
The first three girls Molly, Kirsten, and Samantha had a number of historically accurate accessory sets and outfits that were depicted in their background stories. The American Girl Doll collection was only accessible by mail-order catalogs. In the next 5 years, five more historical dolls with their own set of stories were added. This made a total of eight girls who were from different periods of history (1764-1944). In fall 1997, the online store (AmericanGirl.com) was launched.
Effigies and other magic
An effigy is a performing magic that’s known in Native American, African, and European cultures. Some examples of effigy dolls were the bocio or nkisi in Central or Western Africa.
The dolls represented the person who received the spell. Sticking pins in voodoo stem back from African Hoodoo magic. Poppet were dolls originated in Northern Europe, and was designed to bring good luck.
Hopi Kachina dolls are like African dolls because they are ritual tools, messengers of gods, and methods of education. They were treasured and studied, to learn the characteristics of Kachina which are the bringers of good luck.
Industrial Era and the start of doll culture
The industrialization era began during the 19th century. At this time, dolls became mass produced. Rag dolls, wax dolls, and wooden dolls were still created, but 19th-century dolls were made of ceramic or papier-mache.
In 1863, dolls were made of celluloid, a piece of plastic. The doll houses were now toys for children to use. Meanwhile, the first talking dolls were made by Johann Maelzel in 1823. They said ‘papa' and ‘mamma.' In 1912, the first Kewpie dolls were on sale.
After World War II, the dolls would be created out of vinyl. Barbie dolls were made in 1959, and the Action Man was sold in 1966. The modern Barbie doll is created out of synthetic fiber, polyvinyl chloride, water-based paint, PBT and elastomer.
However, the modern Barbie doll is not created the same way as their 1959 predecessors. Previously, Mattel used porcelain to show the Collector’s Edition Barbie dolls which were more expensive than their regular models.
Polyvinyl, is the primary material used in creating Barbie dolls. It’s commonly referred to as PVC or vinyl. This material is combined with a plasticizer to make the doll less brittle and more flexible.
Elastomer is placed around the stomach area to make a more realistic body movement range. This material allows for the 2014 version dolls to withstand bending and posing. The newer materials are used to improve the doll’s durability and help it withstand normal wear and tear and biting.
Synthetic fibers are used to create the hair for Barbie dolls. The fibers are glued and are dyed in other different styles and colors.
Dolls would continue to grow during this time, but it’s safe to say the modern dolls use the latest technologies to keep younger generations entertained.
Types of dolls in modern times
As society progressed into the 19th century, we would see a huge improvement in the overall doll construction. While older dolls were made of wood, these dolls were designed to keep young children entertained. Here are the main types of dolls that you’ll see during the modern times.
Time Period (Ancient/Modern)
Corn Husk Dolls
Originated in Native America, Corn Husk dolls are created from a “husk” of a corn cob or dried leaves. Historically, the dolls lost their face because they spent too much time thinking about their loveliness instead of spending time with their children.
Wooden Paddle Dolls
2-dimensional wooden dolls founded from Egyptian tombs back in 20th century BC.
These are wooden dolls created in Ghana and nearby areas.
Bratz dolls were manufactured in 2001. These dolls were designed to resemble teenagers with eyeshadow makeup and modern outfits.
Ball Jointed Dolls
These types of dolls were made out of an interconnected ball socket/joint. They were designed from hard plastic materials that were brought together by elastic.What makes these dolls interesting is that the owners can customize the dolls to their own specific needs. You can adjust the wigs, styles, clothes, and everything else in between.
Barbies were launched in the toy industry on March 9, 1959. Barbie had a signature blonde ponytail hair, but various styles have been adopted for the other dolls. By the early 2000s, Barbie has grown into a figurehead brand of Mattel toys and dolls. Barbie has expanded into music albums, TV series, movies, and a lot more.
Porcelain dolls started to rise in popularity and became created in 1860-1900 in Germany and France. Most of the dolls were made in small to medium-sized toy make shops, with rarer models being made for exhibitions and collections.
By 1900, the majority of dolls manufactured had porcelain heads. Some of the earlier known models represented adult men and women, but quickly changed the rest of them to children.
By focusing on a younger audience, they boosted their sales to a new level. Most of the sales would remain the same until the 1930s, as children were in love with this type of doll.
Smaller dolls called “penny dolls” were also popular. As for sizes, the porcelain dolls ranged from 2 inches in size, to the large five feet tall models of girls.
Paper dolls were made during the 20th century. The dolls were cut out of thin card or paper with paper clothes as well. The clothes were made to reflect modern fashion trends at the time. Paper dolls represented ballerinas and became the first celebrity dolls.
Rise of Stuffed Toys
Teddy bears became a childhood staple alongside a variety of other stuffed toy companies such as Gund and Mattel.
After World War II, after the post-war baby boom, the market for toys boomed, making way for brands including the Wallace Berry Company who manufactured toys for Warner Bros, Jim Henson, and Disney toys. Stuffed toys began to hit the market in the 1980s, as companies made fictional characters from cartoons and movies to plush toys.
Today stuffed toys are made everywhere, a necessary toy for children, and creates a lovable and fun experience for people of all ages. They are one of the most sold toys and are popular from babies to adults, and with a good reason. Even if you've never owned a stuffed animal before, they became hard to love.
Poor children were able to make dolls themselves with fabric scraps and rags.
On the other hand, during the 1900s, mass production allowed for Teddy Bears to appear in almost everyone’s homes.
Fashion dolls were made of plaster or wood, and had painted on a face and a fashionable hairstyle made of wool or flax.
They show the latest fashions coming from Paris, which was already known as the fashion capital of the world.
Action figure was a term made in 1964 coined by Don Levine (Hasbro Company) to describe the G.I. Joe toy. Levine preferred the term action figure instead of dolls because its more inviting to young boys.
The original G.I. Joe Doll was similar to the Barbie Doll (Mattel), which was presented five years earlier. However, the action figure had more articulation, a feature that allowed the soldier to be bent in multiple poses. Because of this feature, action figure toys surged in popularity in the 1960s. G.I. Joe became a huge success and remained a seller for around 40 years.
G.I. Joe was followed by CaptainAction in 1966. The toy was noteworthy because it was a single action figure that can be used as multiple characters. The figure was sold with outfits an accessories from other famous characters including Batman, Spiderman, Superman, and Captain America. Captain Action was the figure action figure to combine both superheroes and action dolls, a trend that still occurs today.
In 1977, 20th Century Fox gave Kenner company the license to create action figures based on Star Wars. The success of the movie expanded the toy market and shown the popularity of licensed action figures.
Previously, action figures were at 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) tall, but Kenner created their figures to be 3.75 (9.5 cm)inches in height. Other manufacturers used the smaller figure style. Other manufacturers use the smaller figure style. A host of show-based toys were designed, including Battle Star Galactica, Buck Rogers, and Star Trek.
In 1983, Federal regulations on toy creations were lifted. This opened up a new era in Action figures. Mattel took advantage of this new law and made a cartoon series based on the 1981 product line "He-Man." As a result, the toys were successful and sold over 55 million copies that year. The action figures continued to sell throughout the 1990s, and gained over $1 billion in total revenue. Several toys were made into cartoons, thus starting a long-standing practice of cartoons and linking toys.
First Doll In Space
The first doll to travel in space was through a company called Co. Donegal. On December 6, Stargazer Lottie was the first doll to travel in space. The doll spent a few months with 3 astronauts from America, Russia, and the UK. It was made by the child Canadian doll designer, Abigail who aims to follow her creation's footsteps when she's old enough.
Stargazer Lottie also has accessories such as a tripod, solar system collector cards, and telescope. After the doll was created, the European Space Agency added her onto vessel. Once she was in outer space, she was shown with Tim Peake, during his 6 month mission to the station.
What does the future hold for dolls?
In the future, dolls will receive a boost in value. For instance, "Molly," the first American Girl doll, is about $5,000 in mint condition. Dolls that were made in previous eras will be worth more because they won't be in production anymore.
Future dolls will use the latest technological advancements to create a fun experience for young girls. We can expect dolls to be made in VR environments, giving the user more time to interact, socialize, and grow with their dolls.
Overall, dolls will remain to be a source of joy for younger girls internationally. Through knowing more about doll history, you can view the value that they’ve contributed to our culture. Ultimately, the history of dolls helps us make better dolls for the future while also paying respect to previous generations.