I had friends over for a ‘sewing’ afternoon (the closest we got to sewing was them trying on upcoming Scroop toiles to check the fit) a few days ago, and we ended up chatting about our childhood toys.
I still have example of one of my favourite types of childhood toys, so I had a rummage in the boxes of semi-stored things, and unearthed my paper doll collection:
I collected paper dolls from the time I was 8 or 9, when my parents let us choose any two things we wanted from the Dover catalogue for some special event (oh bliss!), all the way until university.
These were the first two that I chose. My interest in historical fashions was already clearly established!
(I have my doubts about women wearing bustles under their bathing costumes in the 1880s though!)
From then on, I got at least one paper doll book almost every birthday, Christmas or Ayyam-i-ha for years. They were mostly the Dover Tom Tierney paper dolls, but there were a few other brands and artists that I loved as well.
My parents believed in giving gifts that encouraged creativity and learning, so we got lots of art supplies and sewing supplies (good quality stuff too – I still have both the watercolour pencils and the stork scissors I was given at 12), interesting books, and things you did things with.
Luckily for me, the paper dolls qualified, especially if they were about historical figures. I suspect 11 year old me would have gone for more pretty Victorian fashion paper dolls under her own steam, but now-me is prefers the Notable American Women, and Famous American Women that I was likely to get instead.
And I certainly learned a lot from them, they featured not only the women you’d expect, like Amelia Earhart, but ones you were less likely to be introduced to as a pre-teen in the Hawaii public school system, like Edna St Vincent Milay, and Clare Booth Luce.
I also learned not to depend on any historical source that wasn’t a primary source. Most of Tom Tierney’s research was pretty good, but pre-teen me knew immediately that his outfit for Queen Lili’u’okalani is a historical and cultural travesty (as is his terrible ‘hula’ pose of her hands), so everything else had to be taken with a grain of salt.
And I learned lots of fashion history, and fashion terminology. This doll was undoubtedly my first introduction to a burnous:
And the Colonial Fashions dolls may have sparked my love of 16th and very early 17th century fashions:
(though it is funny how not-quite-right historically they look with my current eyes).
While not as pretty, my absolute favourite paper dolls for learning history were the colouring-book paper dolls from Bellerophon Books:
Especially the Infamous Women paper dolls.
To the horrified delight of my classmates, and just plain horror of my teacher, I picked Empress Wu and Roxelana when we had to present on historical figures in a middle-school class, and proceeded to recount their mis-deeds with great relish. To the credit of that teacher, she did not send me to the principal’s office for the presentation (I got scolded a lot for transgressions that can all be described as ‘knowing stuff my teachers didn’t think I ought to’).
I was absolutely delighted to find, in researching this article, that you can still buy Infamous Women, if you too would like to expose your 13 year old to all the women whom history has seen fit to repudiate, deserved or not.
My teenage acquisitions are pristine and uncut:
The early ones are cut out, bent, battered, and played with:
I made stories for the early dolls, rearranged them into different ‘families’, drew them new outfits for specific adventures, and generally just loved them. They aren’t nearly as pretty as my more recent acquisitions, but I remember them so much more. I could still draw almost every one of the dresses from my first six or so books to this day.
Preservationist me rather wants to see if I can find new copies of some of the most battered books though!
I hadn’t bought any paper dolls since moving to New Zealand 11 years ago, as they are too hard to find here, and too expensive to import, but just a few weeks ago I happened upon this beauty at an op-shop:
I guess the bug isn’t entirely dead!
I do hope you enjoyed my trip down memory lane! Did anyone else have paper dolls, particularly the Tom Tierney ones?