Everything You Need to Know About Dolls
The power of Barbie, of course, is just a product of the adoration people have for dolls in general. If you’ve been to a house with a small child in it, there’s a strong chance you’ve seen one (or perhaps many more), and the era of technology hasn’t put too heavy of a dent in it.
That’s not to say that other brands haven’t suffered; American Girl dolls have recently been met with significant setbacks even though they were once considered the most important doll brand in the country.
The History of Dolls
As explained by Birdie Dapples, the regional director of the United Federation of Doll Clubs, dolls are considered to be a vivid representation of the culture in which they’re made. Hairstyles, outfits, backstories, and more can tell someone a lot about cultural norms & phenomena.
When thinking about astronaut Barbie, for example, it’s worth noting that the doll was released four years before the US landed on the moon. By having Barbie don a spacesuit, the makers immortalized a landmark cultural buzz surrounding American achievement against the USSR.
Furthermore, along with reflecting the importance of the space race at the time, it hinted that the makers believed women should be considered equal in those contexts. This was especially relevant considering the number of women that worked on the first Apollo missions.
That was a relatively recent example, but the connection between culture & dolls is as old as dolls themselves.
A Rich And Long Tapestry
The oldest figurines that we’d consider dolls date back thousands of years before the common era. Considered to be some of the most ancient known to us, Japanese dolls made by the Jōmon people have been found from as early as 14,000 BCE.
As we understand it today, the Japanese used dolls as toys & protective measures, as well as utilizing them in certain religious ceremonies.
They would also be given as gifts or perhaps made exclusively for annual festivals like Hinamatsuri, which is dedicated to the dolls themselves, and the Children's Day festival known as Kodomo no Hi.
While the Japanese have quite a few types of dolls, they're all generally referred to as "ningyō," or "human shape." Like the dolls of today, they would represent all manner of regular, fantastical & divine creatures, including children, imperial court members, warriors, gods & demons.
They didn’t start this way: back in their early days they were known as Dogū, or “humanoid figure.” They were used in religious ceremonies & exclusively depicted as gods.
As we entered the common era, their variety of dolls greatly expanded to include ones that represented symbols of resilience & good luck.
The Edo period, in particular, lasting from the 1600s to the 1800s, saw heightened demand from the wealthy, which in turn led to increased production & more complicated, detailed dolls to be used for gift & display purposes.
The ancient Greeks & Romans, for the most part, used dolls in the same contexts as the Japanese. They'd use them for educational purposes on occasion, & they'd be found in child play & religious scenarios just like their Japanese counterparts.
Sometimes, kids weren’t even allowed to touch them due to their supposed high storage of magic power, and women would also dedicate their old dolls from childhood to a goddess once they got married.
They would also place dolls in the graves of their children, which is suspected of having borrowed from the Egyptians. They had created wooden dolls of their own, and their versions are estimated to date back to 2000 BC.
Historians don’t agree on the exact purposes these dolls served, although we can suspect from the fact they were placed in children’s graves that they were meant to be taken into the afterlife by the young dead.
They might have been played with by the children in life, although the fact that they have primarily been found in the graves makes this uncertain.
No matter how people decided to use them, they spread around the world & began to take on many forms. Dolls made of paper, rags, porcelain, and eventually plastic would begin to pop up as the years went on, appealing to the elite & lower classes alike in their different forms.
Before widespread production was possible, mothers would often make dolls for their children that would be passed on from generation to generation, rather than buy one from a store. They were often made of rags or other common materials.
Beyond The Norm
In the homes of the elite, especially in Europe, dolls were made of wood & far more detailed.
Perhaps as culturally ubiquitous as the doll, however, is the dollhouse, which was invented in Germany back in 1558 for Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria.
In those times, however, such a fixture was not touched by any children, or anybody for that matter, since they were purely reserved for display.
These houses & dolls made from more expensive materials became a new hobby for the elite, but they would soon find their way to the public with the help with the Industrial Revolution.
With advances in production technology & material innovation, the first mass-produced dolls hit the market in the 19th century. With this advancement, the faces of these long-beloved figurines would be changed forever for better and worse.
From then on, leading up to the present day, there were a few brands that found widespread success along each of their unique journeys. If you’ve spent any significant time with dolls, you’re almost certain to know about these major players.
If you were a small child or parent to one during the '90s, there was a phenomenon you would have no chance of escaping. Okay, there were a lot of those in those days, but one of the big ones was the famous/infamous American Girl doll.
By far the most expensive of the major doll brands at retail (resale prices for rare ones are a whole other story), it’s interesting to think about how they became one of the most popular toys of the era. A high price tag made it seem prestigious, but it also managed to fly off shelves.
They were invented in 1986 by Pleasant Rowland, who decided that there weren’t enough dolls that focused on girlhood after visiting Colonial Williamsburg & reflecting upon a ginger doll by the name of Felicity Merriman.
As Gothamist describes it, the original American Girl dolls came with six different books: "[A] ‘Meet [Blank]' book, a school story, a Christmas story, a springtime birthday story, a summer tale, and a winter story." There were also corresponding outfits & accessories included.
All this, along with the detail put into the actual doll, came with a cost. They were $82 (not including shipping) back in the 1990s, but people fell in love with them to the point that it was common to know folks with collections of half a dozen or more.
This success was also in part of the way they expanded their lineup. They would create characters from all walks of life with different, unique names. They became collector's items for many, and people's worlds revolve around them.
They were eventually sold to Mattel in 1998, and as we previously discussed, they have seen better days. That being said, though, they're still synonymous with the idea of dolls, and their place in history is firmly held.
The one doll brand holding their ground better is Barbie, and their presence in popular culture is unrivaled by almost any toy out there, let alone any doll.
The doll's inception came sometime after the creation of Mattel, Inc., which Ruth & Elliot Handler in 1945. By 1959, Barbie was brought into the world & charged ahead from there.
Ruth had seen her daughter playing with dolls modeled after adult women & saw an opportunity to inspire young girls to achieve bigger things when they grew up. Mattel bought the rights to a German doll named Bild Lilli & tweaked it into Barbie Millicent Roberts, also known as Barbie.
Keeping with the original mission, Barbie’s taken on hundreds of different careers since her inception, with versions of her as everything from an astronaut, to a pilot, to a game developer, to a president being sold over the years.
While the original version was white, there have also been versions of Barbie released in various ethnicities to keep with the founding idea to give all girls a way to envision their future.
The dolls themselves were a significant cultural force, but the idea behind Barbie, along with the brand itself, has had an impact few could even begin to dream of achieving.
Countless songs, TV shows, movies & the like all reference it. Famed pop & hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj even refers to herself as Barbie regularly.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples is Aqua’s hit song “Barbie Girl,” which was certified platinum & higher in 10 different countries, even going diamond in France. I bet you started singing the chorus in your head as you read this, didn't you? Don’t lie to me.
Unlike the other major dolls, the origins of this one are still contested to this day. If you go to the official website, along with many articles that reference it, they’ll say that Xavier Roberts created the dolls in 1976 when he was a 21-year-old art student.
Martha Nelson Thomas, however, would beg to differ. She’s a Kentucky-based artist who made her dolls in the early 70s and gave them out to family & friends around town. As she tells it, Xavier liked the design & wanted to sell the dolls in his gift shop.
She refused, and Xavier allegedly ran off with the design & sold his versions, claiming it as his original idea. We don't have definitive answers on who is in the right in this situation, but muddy origins didn't stop the dolls from becoming a sudden hit.
For those who haven’t seen them, Cabbage Patch Kids aren’t conventional dolls by any means. They look...different, and it’s this different look that made them simultaneously adored & reviled by the public.
What's more, each one was supposedly unique, with the dolls having slightly different head shapes & proportions. They also came with adoption certificates signed by the credited inventor Xavier Roberts, along with the same signature on the dolls' backsides.
The 80s became the years of the Cabbage Patch Kid, and people were forming lines outside of the stores to get each new release. Different companies had to step in to help with production since demand kept skyrocketing as the decade went on.
At some point, as tends to happen with big trends, the hype died down. While the toy still maintains a presence today, having been manufactured by Mattel since 1994, its profile is nothing near what it was in the glory days.
While the Cabbage Patch Kids had their own share of controversy to deal with, it was nothing compared to the storm that hit the makers of Bratz.
These dolls are the most recent entrants into the Big Four of the doll world, having first been made in May of 2001, but their product left just as much of an impression on the public as the others mentioned in this list, albeit for some different reasons.
For those who’re unfamiliar, Bratz dolls are known for their ethnically ambiguous look, street-wear apparel, big heads, exaggerated pouts & doe eyes. As the other dolls here helped define their decades, Bratz represented many aspects of the decade’s culture.
They were marketed as sassy & hip, and the girls in the target audience loved it. Bratz took a significant portion of the doll market at the time, only being rivaled by Barbie, and things seemed like they were going smoothly.
However, behind every large success will lie a controversy of some form, and Bratz knew that better than anybody.
Seemingly the moment they became popular, everyone from mommy bloggers to the American Psychological Association became to take major issue with the ideals being represented by the dolls & their aesthetics.
Specifically, the APA came out in 2007 to criticize the sexualized image of girls displayed by the dolls & their mannerisms, and droves of bloggers have echoed this same idea, associating them with ideas of hypersexuality & “sluttiness.”
It should be noted, of course, that Barbie faced many of these same criticisms, Over the years, people have claimed that the very physical form of the dolls presents unrealistic expectations to the young girls that buy them & consider them a standard of womanhood.
While Barbie took many of the hits that Bratz would take eventually, the latter seem to have been placed in an especially egregious category of sexualization & unrealistic standards. Even today, people describe certain public figures like Kylie Jenner as a Bratz doll to insult them.
The creators of Bratz don’t see that as an insult, however. One of the designers, in fact, sees Jenner as an "embodiment" of the dolls, representing the ideas of social connection & influence that Bratz is meant to portray. Her appearance, the designer admits, is also a factor.
Dolls in Art
With all of the backlash the most popular dolls have faced concerning sexualization and poor representations of femininity, it makes sense that someone would eventually use them to explore these ideas in an artistic context.
While many have certainly done it before, a recent fascinating example of this exploration came with the 2014 photo series by Sheila Pree Bright, “Plastic Bodies.”
In the series, she recruited various Baltimore women and took photos of them entangled with Barbie dolls.
In describing the project, Bright says, “Playing with a Barbie doll is...an aggressive confrontation with something which is just not a reality at all. But by the very nature of creating work, I’m trying to introduce a new dialogue of how women might be portrayed in culture.”
She was supposedly inspired by the story of “Hottentot Venus” in creating the series.
As the story goes, “Hottentot Venus” was a South African woman brought to the United States on a slave ship to take part in a freak show. In this show, she was meant to serve as the supposed archetype of her people’s womanhood & that of those who looked like her.
Other artistic endeavors have set out to consider dolls within the general concept of gender. Transgender artist Martine Gutierrez set out to do this in her work “Real Dolls,” a photo series she released in 2013.
As she describes it, she grew up collecting Barbies in childhood & upgraded to mannequins as she became an adult. Through her series, she depicts a relationship with dolls and mannequins that line up with the childhood conception of dolls as a vehicle for fantasy & escapist thought.
For her, unfortunately, the escapism is more vital than it is for most. As a transgender woman she's perceived as either an "other" or a target for violence regularly; being able to escape into her world where fluid identities are accepted can be a life-saver.
Dolls as Collectibles
Speaking of dolls & art, there are more than a few people out there who seek out and gather rare & unique dolls like their priceless paintings. We might view their passion as odd, but to them, it's the most sensible part of their lives.
That’s especially the case for Dale Bochy, who founded & currently owns the Legacy Doll Museum in Billings, Montana. She’d loved dolls ever since she was a child & started collecting seriously later on in her life.
She never grew out of it, and she eventually shut down her vintage furniture store before opening the museum in 2007. She feels their psychological draw & potential to elicit emotional response makes them especially fascinating objects.
Along with the psychological draw, there are quite a few reasons people have enjoyed collecting dolls over the years. For some, it's a draw to rare & unique objects. As an example, certain vintage Barbies out there can net you anywhere between 5-6 figures.
As we mentioned earlier in this piece, there’s also a historical factor that adds to the appeal. For those who are fascinated by certain cultural moments, or more so fascinated by their expression through different objects, a doll collection would be very fitting.
Of course, there's also nostalgia; someone who has vivid, fond memories with a certain type of doll might want to get a lot of that doll once they can afford to do so. People might also use them for decoration, and those with interest in costuming might take an interest in the clothes.
Others might get therapeutic value from having them around, and some might just think they’re cute & want to be surrounded. Collectors should keep an eye on their habits, though, as some have fallen into harmful hoarding patterns in the same way as other unbridled collectors.
People will always have their reasons for collecting something, but as long as they’re happy, fiscally responsible & not hurting anyone, there’s no reason to judge them.
The Cognitive Benefits
While we can't convince you to start up your doll collection, we hope we can convince you to let your future (or current) kids play with them when the time comes.
Research has shown that pretend play, the type of imaginative play kids engages in when interacting with dolls, has a substantial amount of cognitive benefit in regards to cognitive development in childhood.
During these pretend play sessions, children can take a practice run at life & the interactions they'll be having when they're all grown up.
Namely, they can engage in any manner of conversation with no consequence, they have an opportunity to exercise empathy, and they’re able to practice taking on the perspectives of others.
Concerning conversation, this facet of pretend play is majorly beneficial to their linguistic development. When a child can practice certain words in a conversation between them & the doll, or with the help of a parent, they're able to pick up the language faster than otherwise.
When a child wants to help their doll by feeding it or giving it their favorite blanket, they're preparing themselves for when someone they know in real life needs to be fed & given a blanket. It seems silly at the moment, but it's one of the most important things they can do.
In step with empathy, perspective taking is one of the most pivotal points of development in childhood, and a kid’s ability to take on the perspective of another shows that they’re making good cognitive progress. Exercising this skill is a necessity, and dolls are a great way to do it.
Furthermore, the exercise of imagination in composing scenarios & having interactions with the doll benefits their creative processes. By training those parts of the brain early, those kids are more likely to become people that utilize creative thought in their life.
Gender Stereotypes (& Why They Need to Go Away)
Despite all of these benefits, there has been a long-persisting stereotype that boys are supposed to play with action figures & never touch the dolls since they were traditionally only for girls. It may just be the way things are, but it could be potentially harmful.
To be fair, many of the cognitive benefits achieved with dolls can be obtained with standard action figures. They still engage in conversation with the figures, they can still learn to take on the perspectives of others, and their creative faculties are still strengthened.
However, the fact that the high majority of action figures encourage some violent interaction in the pretends play context, many boys miss out on the chance to exercise their empathetic capacities.
Take this story someone found on Facebook, for example. It’s from the mother’s point of view, and she describes how her son cares for a doll that he named Ben. As she describes it, he models his behavior towards the doll on the way he saw his mother care for his baby sister.
What’s more, the child’s father supposedly abandoned the family early on in his life, and the mother theorizes that her kid is trying to be the father that he never had.
We can’t speak on how much of this story is true, nor can we speak on the child’s exact motivations to care for the doll. However, we can speak on the skills that child is training through those pretend play interactions.
To put it simply, giving a boy the chance to play with a doll can potentially teach them the nurturing behaviors & empathy required for parenthood. It’s also a perfect middle finger to the stereotypes & standards concerning gender that are still present today.
Given that boys are taught by conventional standards & media to be purely strong, unemotional creatures, the concepts of nurturing & empathy need to be taught to them early and often.
If that behavior is taught consistently enough, that child is much more likely to avoid a toxic sort of masculinity that’s defined the stereotypical man for centuries.
“Creepy Dolls” & the Uncanny Valley
We should expect, of course, that some of you are thinking “Wow, all this stuff about dolls would be so cool if they weren’t so, so creepy.”
We get it, we’ve seen Child’s Play too. Dolls aren't the epitome of cuteness for everyone, and there's a scientific reason for why that's the case.
It all comes down to an idea known simply as the “Uncanny Valley.” When people discuss this idea, they’re talking about the fact that we’re put off by faces that seem almost human but aren’t quite there.
As humans we’re trained to look for faces & the expressions they’re showing in order to understand the world around us. We’re also trained to look for certain cues that indicate the person we want to interact with is indeed a human.
When we try to analyze a doll’s face, our brains get confused. It’s almost what we're looking for, but something's off. It might be the proportions, the look of the eyes, or a range of other factors, but our emotional response is thrown off, and we're left feeling anxious as a result.
That sort of fear is why the idea of a "creepy doll" is a mainstay in modern horror films, with Chucky in the Child above's Play being one of the most famous examples.
It's also why an old woman in San Clemente, California ended up getting questioned by the police after she terrified her neighbors with a simple gesture of goodwill. That gesture? She was leaving dolls on each of their doorsteps.
TV shows haven’t left the concept alone either. The hit show How I Met Your Mother, for instance, has part of an episode where Ted, the main character, and his love interest are put in a hotel room filled with old-timey dolls which visibly scare them & prompt them to leave.
We'll leave it at this: there are people that aren't creeped out by dolls (remember, Barbie is doing the best they've done in half a decade), but make sure to be understanding of those who are put off by the almost-human gaze.
Doll Care & Maintenance
For the many among you who still love dolls & are planning on getting some (or keeping the ones you already have), you’ll have to know how to clean them & get them back together when they come apart.
When it comes to Barbie dolls specifically, there are a few simple processes we found on Real Simple that you can follow to get everything fresh & clean again.
According to Doctor Krista of DollRestoration.com, the hair is best cared for with some warm water and a touch of clear dishwashing liquid. De-clumping the hair is as simple as leaving it in some hair conditioner overnight & going through it with a fine comb.
When her skin is calling for help, Real Simple recommends a citrus-based household cleaner with a gentle touch, which should be applied to a cotton ball or swab and rubbed onto the Barbie. Be careful not to get the solution on the nails or face, though.
Bigger accidents can happen, though. Owners dealing with ink & marker stains can dab some acne cream onto the damage and expose the doll to sunlight for a day while covering the clean areas of her body.
Sealing up cuts is as simple as dabbing on super glue with a toothpick, and getting her to smell better starts & stops with you wrapping her in tissue and putting her in a shoebox full of dryer sheets. Who said beauty was complicated?
Many dolls on the market are made of vinyl (the American Girl dolls, for example), and cleaning them up involves some different methods.
For starters, you can take care of minor wear on the skin with some baby wipes & moderate rubbing. Pay attention, though, because going too hard can damage the paint on the face.
More serious boo-boos call for dish soap. Not too much; just get a damp washcloth and touch it with a drop of gentle dishwashing soap. Again, as with the baby wipes, make sure you don’t put a lot of strength into your wiping motions.
Another recommended method is as simple as a toothbrush & a little bit of soapy water, and a final industry secret involves the paste, rather than the brush.
Specifically, some experts recommend dabbing some whitening toothpaste onto the stain, leaving it to sit for a couple of minutes if it's a heavy one, and then using a damp (not dripping) cloth to wipe it all away.
If you’ve taken care of a child for more than 10 minutes, you know just as well as anyone that playtime can get rough. Life happens & dolls can end up falling apart, with heads and limbs flying around everywhere before you know it.
We all have a little handyman in us, and doll repair can be a time to let them shine.
Most typical fix-ups can be done in minutes. When it comes to limbs falling off the ones with a push-in mechanism, all you have to do is take a hair dryer to the ill-fitting area, so the plastic becomes pliable, reform it to the desired shape, then reinsert it into the doll.
For softer dolls losing their stuffing, just cut them open along the back, put in a decent amount of polyester stuffing (you can buy it from the local crafts store), then sew up the incision. Easy, right? We think so too.
Things get a bit more complicated when it comes to strung vinyl or plastic dolls, but there’s no need to lose hope yet. To keep it simple, some dolls of that nature have their extremities (limbs & head) kept in place with the help of an internal string & pulley system.
As is the case with many systems keeping toys together, this one can sometimes come apart. Thankfully, getting it back together only requires a wire coat hanger & some elastic material to replace the string.
Make one loop for the legs & head and a similar but smaller one for the arms, making sure each loop is tightly knotted at the end.
Assuming the head is linked to the body with a hook that’s now gone or faulty, now’s the time to use the coat hanger.
Including the hook, cut a piece of the hanger & attach the hook to the bar inside the head. Secure the string loop to the hook & bring the other end into the torso.
Next comes the legs. You can restring these onto the body by grabbing at the loop dangling inside the torso & having it connect with the hook that should be located in the leg.
Then, you’ll need to “use the stringing hook to pull the loop through the opposite arm hole. Attach the loop to the hook on the arm then remove the stringing hook.”
After that, everything should in place & flexible like it’s fresh out of the factory. If you have more serious repairs that need to be done, or if you’re not too confident in your skills, there’s no shame in finding a repairman or even sending them to the hospital.
You read that right: there are hospitals dedicated solely to dolls. Dolls by Diane is one of the most reputable in the business with over 30 years in experience, but a simple Google search should hopefully reveal repair shops in your area.
Rich with intriguing histories & eye-catching varieties with a long-established place in our culture, dolls are far more than the annoying piece of plastic parents slip on when they’re trying to clean the house.
It can be a lifelong passion for some and a livelihood for others, but for most they’re a fondly remembered cornerstone of early life & play.
We’ve made sure to cover everything in this piece to an extent. However, the nuances of dolls & their history call for dedicated articles of their own, which is why we’ll be writing them up for your reading pleasure.