Dolls and soft toys are often regarded with sentiment as they are a reminder of childhood days. Some dolls and doll's houses were never made as playthings but rather as collector's pieces for adults. They were often accurate copies of the fashions and architecture of the time. Doll design itself has evolved as new materials have been developed but the basic principle of creating a miniature companion remains.
In Europe the wooden toy making industry evolved from a rural craft into an organised craft guild. In the 17th century wood dolls were of the highest quality and were mostly made from pine. Dolls were hand-carved with mortise and tenon joints, had painted faces and wore fashionable clothes.
By the 19th and 20th centuries wood dolls were considered cheap, throw-away items. Stump dolls which had no legs were carved from a single piece of wood and painted in bright colours. A popular development in this period were the jointed peg woodens with painted faces and feet which were made in sets of various sizes in the Grodener Tal region of Austria.
Three types of porcelain dolls were produced; glazed china, untinted bisque and bisque. Each head was produced in a mould and usually fired three times and glazed twice. The first firing produce the bisque or ‘biscuit’ base and subsequent firings fused the painted decoration and glazes on the head. Each mould was used 40 or 50 times before being discarded. Many German porcelain factories that produced household items began to manufacture bisque heads and limbs. Thuringia was the home of many manufacturers including Simon & Halbig, established in 1869 and Armand Marseille, 1890. Large numbers of doll heads were exported and attached to bodies at a later date. Kammer & Reinhardt and Cuno and Otto Dressel used the heads to produce complete dolls for retail.
France was also a leading doll manufacturer. Jumeau produced bisque head dolls with jointed composition bodies. In 1899 the French companies amalgamated to form the Societe Francaise de Fabrication de Bebes et Jouets in order to compete with German competition.
Fashion dolls were popular throughout the 19th century and instead of mis-shapen cloth bodies many were made from kid to recreate the shapely figure of a young woman wearing a corset. Porcelain heads often reflected the fashionable hairstyles of the period but by 1870 moulded styles were being replaced by hair wigs. Dolls were made with pierced ears and bisque feet that were moulded and painted to look like stockings and boots.
Wax was originally used to make religious effigies and votive offerings and the skills of model makers were brought to London in the 19th century, most notably by the Montanari and Pierotti families. The dolls head was modelled in wax or clay and then made into a cast from a two or three part plaster mould. Molten wax, a blend of colouring, bleached beeswax and other additives were then poured into the mould. Manufacturers experimented with either single layers of wax or multiple layers although the final thickness was normally no more than 3mm.
Blown or moulded glass eyes were added and the hair, either mohair or human hair, was inserted into fine cuts or pin holes. The facial features would then be enhanced by colouring the mouth and the whole surface of the head dusted with a fine pumice to remove the shine. Mostly the heads were shoulder heads that could be attached to the doll’s body by sew-holes on the shoulder plate. The cloth bodies were made from calico stuffed with hair or fibres and often had poured wax lower limbs.
The discovery of composition materials enabled manufacturers to mass produce dolls that were cheaper and easier to make than carved wood or bisque which required firing. Pulped wood and paper-based mixtures could be pressed into moulds making it strong and durable.
Manufacturers experimented with mixtures using a variety of additives such as glue, flour, boiled sawdust, plaster and anything else to hand. Once dry the head would be covered in a glutinous wash, painted in water-based, flesh coloured tones and varnished.
To improve the appearance of the doll even further heads were coated with a layer of wax. However, as wax and papier mache expand and contract at different rates the wax often cracked producing rather gruesome looking dolls. Composition dolls are often coupled with stuffed cloth or kid bodies.
Celluloid was first used for dolls by the Hyatt Brothers of New Jersey, USA in the late 1860s. Dolls were made by placing the solid celluloid in a two piece metal mould and then blowing steam into the mould under pressure to soften and bond the two halves together.
Celluloid was cheap to produce, light and easy to mould. It was also extremely inflammable and faded in bright light. In the 1920s and 1930s celluloid dolls were popular and Japan cornered the market in mass production.
Celluloid was replaced by the much safer invention of vinyl in the 1950s. This period saw an increased demand for novelty dolls inspired by cartoons, films and TV. The notion of the teenage fashion inspired the creation of Barbie dolls in California in 1959. The British firm of Pedigree copied the idea and produced Sindy in 1962. Male companions were made for them, and all the different accessories that a young woman might want.
Perhaps the most famous male doll was Action Man first issued in 1964. His popularity waned in the late 1960s so he was re-presented in the 1980s as a global adventurer to meet the needs of a more anti-war market. The post-war period saw a variety of new plastics which required new technology and equipment. Toy manufacturers found they could produce millions of dolls that were identical or were a variation of a basic shape. Vinyl was more flexible and less dangerous than celluloid and could be produced in hard and soft forms. Soft vinyl was particularly suitable for dolls heads as it allowed hair to be rooted into the head.
Traditionally rag dolls have been stuffed with cloth, sawdust, straw and later kapok. Many were home-made for children but from about the 1850s rag dolls were produced commercially and were printed on cloth or had their features hand painted in oils. Some companies, such as Steiff and Lenci, began to experiment with stockinet and felt which was hot-pressed over a mould.
Norah Wellings, who was originally a designer for Chad Valley, used velvet to create her dolls. Often dolls were made to represent character types such as the Seven Dwarfs or as souvenirs such as the velvet sailors that Norah Wellings created to be sold aboard passenger liners.
Margarete Steiff started a small family business making soft toys in Germany in the late 19th century. Other firms, such as the British United Toy Manufacturing Company trading under the name Omega, produced a number of plush animals from the 1890s onwards.
During the First World War there was a ban on German imports and British soft toy firms flourished. The Yorkshire woven mohair plush fabric which had previously been exported to Germany was used by the home market. Domestic animals were a popular choice, such as cats, dogs, rabbits and ducks, as well as elephants and monkeys. Originally wood wool was generally used as a filling, but kapok, a natural silky fibre, become more widely used in the 1920s.
Chad Valley set up their soft toy division in 1920s and Merrythoughts began production in the 1930. The introduction of new materials such as artificial silk, rayon plush and velveteen saw a change in design and production. During the 1940s toys were scarce and mostly made in the home from scraps of material. Wool was rationed and often garments were unravelled and re-used to knit toys.
The post-war period saw the introduction of man-made fabrics, such as nylon and polyester. More attention was given to hygiene and safety as British Safety Standards were introduced. Glass eyes on toys were replaced by plastic ones which were made safer by the locking system introduced by Wendy Boston Playsafe Toys. In 1955 she also introduced the first machine washable bear which contained quick drying filling.
At this time American firms such as Dakin and Wallace Berrie contracted much of their work to Taiwan, Korea and China. Several well established British firms went out of business in the 1960s and 1970s, unable to compete with cheaper imports.