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The Dolls of Victoria: An unveiled toy story

If some of the old dolls could only speak, to tell us their origin! - Fainges, 1993:11

Our attachment to dolls – beyond them being simply an idealised smaller version of a human figure – reflects many aspects of human behaviour and cultural practices. Dolls have long been attributed with magic powers, associated with religious beliefs, and connected to family rituals and traditions. Whether used as common toys, instruments of storytelling, educational tools, or to provide comfort and support to people during times of distress – dolls have maintained a significant place in many cultures. Examining their function and use across place and time can reflect major global developments, social changes and the impact of major historical events such as immigration and war. This story looks at the manufacture, use and enjoyment of dolls held in cultural collections throughout the state that have been catalogued here on Victorian Collections.

Banner image: Postcard: Miss Billie Burke, from the collection of Sovereign Hill and Gold Museum.

Wooden Doll

Seaworks Maritime Discovery Centre

One of the earliest doll making traditions still active today dates from around 8000 B.C. in Japan, where around seventeen different classifications of dolls exist. Typically carved from wood or made from papier-mâché, these dolls played a variety of roles within Japanese culture. Dolls for children were created and used to provide protection from negative spirits or bad influences. Delicately decorated and beautifully costumed dolls for adults could symbolise social status or religious beliefs. Some dolls were even believed to absorb their owner’s sins.

While the provenance of this doll is not documented, it is possible that it arrived in Australia prior to the First World War. Japan was a major supplier of dolls to Australia before the onset of war crippled trade relations between many nations.

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Porcelain Doll

Kiewa Valley Historical Society

Our affection and devotion to dolls reflects the bond which exists between women and children and is particularly evident through times of upheaval, such as wartime and during long journeys. The story of dolls in European settled Australia during the late 18th and early 19th centuries reveals the important role dolls played in connecting migrants to the lives they left behind. Dolls became a creative way for families to prepare children for the long sea voyage which sometimes lasted more than 6 months. Parents used dolls both as entertainment and educational tools to keep their children occupied and educated about life matters. The manufacture of dolls during this time varied from highly sophisticated to simple wood carved or cloth dolls, some of which were made using the limited materials available on a boat.

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Toy Soldier, c.1878

Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village

Although just a few dolls survived the adversities of these long treacherous sea voyages, those that did acquired a level of personal significance and continued to provide companionship for children in a strange new world. This rare figurine – believed to be a French dragoon guard of the Franco Prussian war – survived the 1878 Loch Ard shipwreck and a subsequent hundred years under the cold salted waters off the Victorian coastline. Made of ‘new’ durable rubber, it reflects how innovative developments in materials influenced doll manufacturing at that time.

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Dolls Leg, c. late 19th century

Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village

Information about the use of dolls during the early years of European settlement in Australia is limited. It is believed that adapting to life in a new country brought about a diminished use of dolls. Many children were forced to work to help their families, severely restricting time available for play. Within more affluent families though, existing records show that dolls were still used to educate children about the European culture they had left behind.

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Doll's Pram, c. early 20th century

Orbost & District Historical Society

Waves of migrants arriving due to the Gold Rush from 1851 onwards brought with them a complex and unstable environment. Raising children in these circumstances was a difficult duty, with many parents working in mines and trying to endure hostile conditions. The domestic doll making industry grew at this time out of a necessity for women to provide additional support to their working husbands. Hand crafts and manufactured products like this pram were a practical way of providing income.

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Porcelain Headed Doll, c.1880-90

Orbost & District Historical Society

Porcelain doll making represents one of the oldest traditions of doll manufacturing. Having existed in China since 2000BC their manufacturing secrets were kept hidden for many centuries. By 1710, the German Meissen Factory discovered the ingredients to produce glazed porcelain ‘china’ doll parts and as a result doll manufacturing evolved quickly. The most common of these china dolls were named ‘Low Brow’, so called because their hairdos had bangs which lay low on their forehead. They featured black molded hair and blue eyes. These dolls were manufactured in the millions during the 1890’s and reflected a shift in design to appeal specifically to the European market.

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Celluloid baby doll, c.1920

Orbost & District Historical Society

The variety of materials used over time for making dolls reflects the manufacturing and technological evolution which has taken place over the past two hundred years. Celluloid, a highly flammable but tough synthetic plastic which allows for the adaptation of new styles and more manageable moulds, began to be used as a substitute to porcelain by the 1920’s. The Japanese and German doll industries in particular were highly competitive within this market. Due to their affordability and the high quality and quantity being imported, the local doll making industry fell into decline.

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Kewpie Doll, c.1950

Stratford and District Historical Society

Kewpie dolls, named after Cupid and modelled on comic strip characters drawn by Rose O'Neil in 1909, were a large part of the celluloid industry. Kewpie babies have acquired popularity around the world and are still recognised as one the most iconic symbols of popular culture ever produced. They were continually manufactured up until the 1990’s and in Australia as in America, Kewpie dolls were popular prizes at local agricultural shows and fairs.

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Photograph of Jessica Simon

Sovereign Hill and Gold Museum

“Probably the most important event in the Australian doll story was the onset of the Second World War." - Fainges, 1933:10

During the Second World War, the doll industry in Australia was affected by depression and socio-economic uncertainty and once more doll manufacturing was taken up by immigrant families as a way of supporting and improving their economic stability. The learnt migrant skills progressively transformed their makers into professional dolls makers and international exporting businesses were created.

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Pair of dolls, c. early 20th century

Orbost & District Historical Society

By 1942 The War Organisation of Industry department (WOI) restricted importation and exportation of doll material in Australia and declared it illegal in some states to produce dolls and toys. Stringent restrictions were in place to enable all existing resources to be available for the war effort and as a doll black market was created.

"The housewife, mother, doting aunt and grand mother now stepped into the breach, with the aid of quickly designed and published paper patterns, and turned their artistic skills and talents to making dolls out of calico, felt and any other material that could be purchased, cajoled, or otherwise found to fill the gap." - Fainges, 1933:10

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Norah Wellings Doll, c.1930-60

Queenscliffe Maritime Museum

According to Marjorie Fainges (1993), dolls were used as emotional comfort toys for post war-affected children. These amazing objects helped to re-establish social connections and gave support in difficult moments. Eleonor Loreto Harris, a nurse and doll maker from NSW said “…most streets had at least one family without a father”, and her contribution to the after-care of these families often included dolls for the girls or toys made by her husband for the boys.

This particular doll resembles those made by Norah Wellings, a well known and highly respected British toy designer during and after the Second World War.

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Barack Obama Figurine

During the 1960’s, a successful doll industry was re-established in Australia but once again found itself unable to compete with the high numbers and low production costs in Europe. Although improvements in materials, designs and technology linked doll makers with innovative ideas, the machinery remained too costly to import, which once more led to a breakdown of the local industry.

China remains the global leader of toy manufacturing today, although the popularity and enjoyment of dolls generally has considerably diminished due to the rise of online games and electronic devices. Instead a multimillion dollar industry based on character dolls and figurines influenced by screen culture has evolved as highly collectable objects are traded online by dedicated fans. So while our attachment to and use of dolls may have changed over the years, their charm and attraction remains.

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