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Bevis Hillier

Oh, You Beautiful Doll : Wax Dolls Were Once as Popular as Their Cabbage Patch Descendants Are Today. This Year, One Antique Sold for $1,842

December 01, 1985|BEVIS HILLIER

As a child, my mother hated playing with dolls. She had two elder brothers, whose games seemed much more exciting to her. She would as soon have been given a box of scented soap as a doll. Today--perhaps because we regret what we didn't do in youth more than what we did--she has become an ardent doll collector, and she has written three books on dolls. The latest is "Wax Dolls" (by Mary Hillier, Hobby House Press Inc., Cumberland, Md., $19.95).

You might have found a wax doll in your Christmas stocking if you had been a young girl between the 1820s and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. If your family was poor, the doll would have been a simple affair, costing only a few cents. If your family was rich, it might have been one of the luxury portrait dolls representing celebrities, such as the reformer Amelia Bloomer in her famous pantaloons. The more-elaborate dolls cost several dollars when they were made and are eagerly collected today. An Amelia Bloomer doll fetched $1,842 at Sotheby's this year, a record price for a wax doll.

The dolls' heads were made by the poured-wax method. A clay model was made, and from that a plaster mold; liquid wax was poured into the mold and poured out again until a thickness of about a quarter of an inch was achieved. Most of the wax dolls given to American children were imports from England and Germany. The reason so few wax dolls were made in the United States was explained by a London doll maker in 1850 to that superb social reporter, Henry Mayhew:

"They can't make wax dolls in America, sir, owing to the climate. The wax won't set in very hot weather and it cracks in very cold. I know a party who went out there to start as a doll maker. He took several gross of my (glass) eyes with him, but he couldn't make a success. The eyes we make for Spanish America are black. A blue-eyed doll in that country wouldn't sell at all. Here (in England), however, nothing goes down but blue eyes. The reason for that is because that's the color of the Queen's (Victoria's) eyes, and she sets the fashion in this as in other things."

Among the ancestors of wax dolls are the wax portraits of notable characters, made in 15th-Century Italy; the realistic anatomical models made in wax by Leonardo da Vinci; and the wax portrait models created by the 18th-Century Bolognese modelers, Angelo Pio and Anna Morandi, both of whom used glass eyes, real hair and costumes supplied by the sitters.

Small wax dolls for dolls' houses were made in Amsterdam, Holland, in the 17th Century. In 1725, Daniel Defoe, the author of "Robinson Crusoe," reported from Paris that "the Duchess of Orleans made a present to the infant Queen of a wax baby three foot high with diamond earrings, a necklace of pearls and diamond cross...." (Dolls were often called babies at that time.) French dolls also were sometimes used as three-dimensional fashion-plates.

By the early 19th Century, wax dolls for children were sold extensively in London. Some were models of royal personages and royal babies; these sold for high sums in luxury shops. Others could be bought inexpensively in bazaars off Oxford Street--still today a London shopping center for those in search of a bargain. Even the cheaper dolls often had a peach-like "bloom" on their cheeks, achieved by the application of violet powder.

My mother has been able to track down descendants of many of the 19th-Century doll makers and to learn their histories--the Pierottis, the Montanaris, the Meech family, Lucy Peck, and John Edwards, who is the least known but was the most prolific of London doll makers. In 1871, Edwards was turning out 22,000 dolls a week, many of them no doubt destined for the American market. His shop was described in a magazine article of 1883:

"Counters and stands are crowded with dolls, some fully dressed and others whose outfit is left to be determined by the purchasers. There are young lady dolls of large size, attired in morning, dinner or ball costumes; there are baby dolls, most elaborately dressed in sewed muslin and lace; and there are character dolls, such as Mother Hubbard, Red Riding Hood, Highlanders and fishwives. In a special compartment are to be seen models in wax of single figures and groups copied from well-known paintings or engravings; and mechanical dolls that move their heads and imitate breathing by means of clockwork."

By the end of the 19th Century the vogue for wax dolls was in decline. Smart little girls wanted the more fashionable models with heads of bisque china. Lucy Peck still stocked wax dolls but considered them "old-fashioned." Wax dolls began the slow ascent from the toy box to the collector's cabinet.

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