A little bit of nostalgia: paper dolls

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

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:

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com01

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!

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

(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.

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

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.

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

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.

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

And I learned lots of fashion history, and fashion terminology.  This doll was undoubtedly my first introduction to a burnous:

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

And the Colonial Fashions dolls may have sparked my love of 16th and very early 17th century fashions:

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

(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:

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

Especially the Infamous Women paper dolls.

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

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.

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com   It’s easy to tell which paper dolls I got as a child and pre-teen, and which I collected later.

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

My teenage acquisitions are pristine and uncut:

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

The early ones are cut out, bent, battered, and played with:

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

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:

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

Paper doll collection, thedreamstress.com

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?


  1. Oh I loved paper dolls as child. I had only three from Czech republic (haven’t seen any in Austria). Two for modern fashion and one for historical fashion looking a bit grumpy. I often drew new outfits. Well I sometimes spend a whole weekend coping garments from historic fashion books (filled over two folders).

  2. Erika says

    I loved paper dolls! Even though I am in my mid-thirties, I still have the ones I collected as a child. They were all cut out and played with and none of them are in pristine condition. After reading your post, I dug them out of the closet. Tom Tierney dolls were a favorite, but I also really loved a collection by Betty J. Mills called ‘a journal of fashion history through paper dolls’. There were three books, ‘Amanda’s New Life’, ‘Amanda Goes West’, and ‘Amanda’s Home on the Range’.

  3. Lisette says

    We have a lot of these in our costume shop. I saw they did an Alexander McQueen one, so they must still be producing them! The Dover website still sells them.

  4. Elizabeth says

    I love Tom Tierney’s paper dolls and coloring books! I pulled my medieval fashions one out for my daughter a couple of years ago, and she fell so hard and fast for them that she begged for more and I promptly ordered about a half dozen of them. Now she’s covered from the middle ages to the 20s. We will sit down and color them together; she takes one page, and I take the other. It’s a great way to spend time together and for me to teach her a little bit about a subject I loved so much. I still have my Prismacolor colored pencils that I saved for and bought in college 20+ years ago, and she’s now begging for her own set. She’s 10 and always drawing or coloring, so I’m probably going to cave and get them for her. She’s already got a set of Stabilo pens. I’m all for cultivating creative hobbies. Thanks for the nostalgia trip!

  5. Karen in Michigan says

    I have a lot of those, although I wasn’t a child when they came out. I adored paper dolls when I was young and spent countless hours making my own. I don’t have any of mine due to my mother’s idea of cleaning out my closet. But I do have her paper dolls from the early 1940s. I have her Shirley Temple and Elizabeth Taylor dolls.

  6. Elise says

    Squee! I had the Colonial ones, the Victorian family ones, the Victoria and Eugenie ones, and the Erte ones. I never cut them out, but would look at them over and over. When I was a kid, I scored a bunch from the 30s (Dion Quintuplets) and 40s. I am sure that they are no more.

    I think the best part about paper dolls is how the artist had to work with sillouhettes, hence the bustle under the bathing suit (because if I remember, the underwear dolls had a bustle), and the hand positioning, like how you see with Queen Lili’u’okalani (I suspect)

  7. I have a few sets of the Tom Tierney paper dolls as well as others, and I remember mixing matching families from them. (With great historical inaccuracy I am sure. 🙂 I have a set of Lincoln’s family, and then a family from I believe the turn of the century from Tom Tierney. I did make new clothes for my paper dolls, and sometimes new people that never stood up right but flopped over even with poster board!


  8. I’ve always loved paper dolls and still have a fair number of the Tom Tierney Dover ones. They were invaluable when I was doing community theater costumes.

    One of my favorite memories of visiting my paternal grandparents was looking at the paper dolls an costumes my aunt had cut out and colored from newspapers.

  9. Charlotte says

    I absolutely loved playing with paper dolls as a child. My main collection was of the American Girl paper dolls (at that point Molly was the newest doll in the line). Kirsten, Samantha, and Felicity saw the hardest use. Last year I was back at my parents home and dug them out. They were still as tidy stored as the last day I’d played with them and brought back all kinds of memories. I also has a Victorian Wedding trousseau set by Brenda Sneathen Maddox that I loved.

  10. I started purchasing Tom Teirney books when I was doing my C+G Fashion course in about 2002.
    One of my favourites is Molyneux designs. I still sometimes try to work out how the strapping and other sections weave through a garment…usually when trying to get to sleep!

  11. Buttercup says

    Drool! I loved paper dolls as a child and I still get a buzz out of them now. Mine were always played with to the point of extinction. Thanks for sharing your collection with us.

  12. Rebecca says

    My mother collected the Tom Teirney dolls when I was little. I was never allowed to cut them out, but I would trace them and play that way. When I started designing my own clothing, I used outlines of the dolls as bases since I couldn’t draw a decent person to save my life. I still use those same outlines 15 years later because I still can’t draw people.

  13. Natalie says

    Definitely. For me, even as a child I hated cutting them. I liked my books to stay intact and I found the tabs annoying because they didn’t stay on. Historical fashion barbies were my doll of choice. I have a bunch of uncut paper dolls.

  14. Belinda says

    I was obsessed with making my own paper dolls as a kid. Not quite so historically rich though! I tended to make Sailor Scouts…

  15. Makenzie says

    I actually met Tom Tierney about five years ago! He and his son run an antique shop a couple of hours from where I lived in high school. He was really nice and signed a couple of books for me.

  16. I didn’t have any of the historical ones, my mother kept those for herself. She’s still got her original Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I ones and has used them as a base for some blackwork pictures she’s done. Unfortunately I haven’t found them for me yet and the budget doesn’t allow me to look yet either. One day though…

  17. I collected the Tom Tierney paper dolls with a passion!! And other designers from Dover and other sources. And I especially loved if you could color the dolls too, like with the Enchanted Forest series. And this definitely took me along the path to sewing clothes and costumes, but it took a lot longer. I stayed in the writing and drawing phase for a long time and it occurred to me much later (when I was at university) that I could to use REAL fabric to make things. So I started making outfits for my Gene doll (by Mel Odom) and finally for myself!! I wish I had figured that out earlier. Not sure why I didn’t!! I still collect paper dolls but I admit that I don’t cut them out and play with them anymore. More’s the pity!

  18. That’s a great collection! I had so many of the same sets when I was a teen, too.

    There’s actually a fairly active paper doll community still. This is a good place to start: http://paperdollreview.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=16

    There are also a number of paper doll artists with printable paper dolls. There’s Paper Thin Personas (http://paperthinpersonas.com) and Pop Culture Paper Dolls (http://popculture.lookingland.com/wp/) as well as my paper doll blog (http://paperdollschool.blogspot.com).

    Join the paper doll Renaissance 🙂

  19. I had a few of the Tom Tierney historical clothing coloring books which I spent hours looking through as a teenager, but I never colored in them! Those books are still on my book shelf in my sewing room, and when I happen across a “new” one at a thrift store I’m always excited!

  20. Angela says

    Oh my goodness! My mom and her sisters were into paper dolls and they passed that love onto me, but my own girls are totally uninterested! What a lovely collection you have. 🙂

  21. Kathryn says

    Hah! Well, isn’t this something! I used to have the Great Fashion Designs of the Victorian Era book as well, and like you, I LOVED it to death. I have no idea where mine got to in the intervening years, nor do I remember how it originally came to me. My guess would be it was a gift from my Aunt, who always had (and still has) a way of finding the most spectacular gifts for people. I never had any others after that, I don’t think it even occurred to me back then that there might be more to ask my parents for.

    Here’s the fun part, though: my Mr. surprised me with with that exact Erte book a couple years ago, shortly after we saw it in a museum gift shop on vacation in Montreal. So my first paper dolls as a child and my first paper dolls as an adult are the exact same as yours! Great minds and all that. 🙂

    I am going to pull out that Erte book and have a bit of fun with it now. You have totally made my night, thank you!

    • Kathryn says

      And, picturing a middle-school (Jr. High in my neck of the woods) class presentation on Empress Wu has also made my night. Lolol! Amazing.

  22. Chihaya says

    I had/still have in a box somewhere Tom Tierney’s 3 Little Kittens paper dolls. Their roughly Elizabethan costumes were the best!

  23. We had paper dolls, but they were nowhere near as awesome as these; they just featured regular boring 80s-early 90s clothes. But we also had a couple that mother made for us herself, and we made their clothes ourselves; there were, I think, three that were fed off our interest in Native Americans, and the clothes eventually heavily inspired by the excellent Czech encyclopedia by Mnislav Zelený (a miracle of a book: erudite, well-researched and sourced, written by someone with a lot of first-hand experience; and lavishly illustrated and published by a publisher of children’s books – it must have been my first brush with true literature of fact. Oops, I digress. Also, I badly want my own copy.)
    … anyway. I’ve shared my memories of historical fashions on Facebook. I know I would have loved these. Although some Czech ladies would have been nice, too. 😀
    Is the lady with the picture frame a painter, a collector, or something else entirely?

    • P.S. Being Central European, the interest in Native Americans was, of course, first sparked by Karl May and his mixed mess of a romantic depiction. I bring it up partially because the Czech illustrations to one of his books were my first introduction to 1860s fashions. It was a fascinating picture, because the character in the dress was a female pirate in disguise, and the shape of the dress really drove the effectivity of the disguise home. 😀

      Also, I remember you mentioning the Infamous Women before.

  24. P.P.s. Oops, no, I didn’t share on Facebook. I wrote a comment and never posted it. Sorry for being so rambling, I have a cold and apparently also cold-addled brain. 😛

  25. Aw. It’s so nice to read something positive about Tom Tierney. I have to admit I can be VERY brutal about people who set themselves up as fashion historians and then do all their own illustrations themselves, rather than use original material or sources, because to be honest, very few people are a Nancy Bradfield or a Janet Arnold….. I do remember reading quite a lot of early introductions to fashion history where the illustrations were done by the author or contemporary drawings/redrawings too, but I quickly found myself wanting to see The Real Thing, rather than someone else’s drawings-of-drawings. I do strongly believe that anyone wanting to study fashion should stay well away from stuff like John Peacock’s sourcebooks, and instead go straight to the original sources and see what they can learn from them. Because no matter how good an artist is, ultimately you’re looking at his or her impression of the original, and I’m a bit of a purist in that I’d much rather see the original print/painting/whatever.

    It also frustrated me that when I was looking for more books on fashion, so many of the new books were in that vein – and to me, I was never particularly fond of Tom Tierney as I found his style a bit garish and a bit “modern-people-dressed-up”-looking. But your love-letter to his paperdoll books was lovely and a good read – he’s still not my cup of tea, but I love that he got so many people interested in the subject, so that’s a good thing.

    • Oh, I’d much rather see the original, and I DEFINITELY wouldn’t recommend using them as a source for costumes – his details and colours are so off (plus other stuff).

      But for me, and I suspect a lot of other girls, it was an intro to a lot of new subjects, and as soon as I realised that they were taken from original things (which must have been very early on) made a game of seeing if I could find the original fashion plate or painting.

      I think they work for me because I see them as what they were to me: children’s toys. And then they led on to a more adult approach to costume.

  26. Wendy says

    No paper dolls for me, but I have almost the entire set of Dover’s Sears and Roebuck’s catalogue selections by the decade. Having lived through the 70’s I didn’t feel I needed that one! (You can read my reviews of the 1950s one on the Dover website). It was very exciting waiting for the books to arrive from overseas, and once I had a couple I just had to get the rest!

    If you pick carefully and buy when they have specials it doesn’t turn out to be too much to pay the postage on top.

    The set of Sears and Roebucks are interesting not just for the clothes themselves, but also for the changing illustration styles and the text showing what was important socially at the time. Finally in the 60s a non-white person appears on the catalogue – a very dapper African American gentleman in a small photo.

    I thumb through them on a regular basis.

  27. Valerie says

    I love Tom Tierney’s paper dolls… I use the poses of the figures for costume design renderings because they are very good at showing off the clothes and having a (mostly) “normal” human figure (aka not the 9 heads tall fashion figure).

  28. Jane Civins says

    My dear Dreamstress, I wrote to you about the Tom Tierney books via the email link in the “About Me” section. I hope you received my letter, and that you’ll react favorably to my offer.
    With all best wishes,

    • Hi Jane,

      I’m sorry, I have not received a message from you via my messaging system. There must have been a glitch – I’ve received a number of other messages this week, so it is working. Could you tell me a bit more about your offer here, or try again please?

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