The hype surrounding porcelain dolls is seen everywhere from classic literature to modern horror films. Every little girl has looked with shining eyes at a pretty little porcelain doll at one point or another, admiring her perfect curling locks and dress stitched with care. Produced since 18th century, thousands of porcelain dolls are manufactured yearly today. Where did this fascination begin?
The first porcelain dolls, china dolls were manufactured predominantly in Germany starting in 1840. They were made of white glazed porcelain with hand-painted features, stockings or boots and molded hair. Often, these “old-fashioned” dolls were made to look like women, rather than children, with a body of cloth or leather and porcelain extremities. Produced in large quantities reaching into the millions, these china dolls were soon replicated in America and China. These original dolls differ from successors in their characteristic glossy appearance.
Soon to follow, parian dolls gained popularity with their unglazed porcelain faces and inset glass eyes from the 1850’s onward. As the porcelain doll developed through World War I, they took on more complicated features and were given goat or human hair atop their porcelain heads. As their reputation grew, every young affluent girl wanted one, necessitating industrial manufacturing of clothing and accessories for these fashion dolls. Sometimes, Paris companies such as Jumeau and Bru would design the bodies while German companies manufactured heads.
A large shift in the industry and intended audience occurred as dolls were created to represent children, rather than grown-ups. By the late 19th century, child-like figures overtook the market. The most notable of these porcelain dolls were French bebes which grew in popularity between the 1860’s and 1880’s. Made of the highest quality material and with great skill, these dolls weren’t produced for long before cheaper German imitations drove French bebes to a lesser quality and production cost. The original bebes dolls are worth thousands of dollars on the collector’s market today.
With lower prices and increased production, porcelain dolls found their way into children’s hearts across the world. Smaller unarticulated bisque dolls called penny dolls were popular into the early 1930’s when the United States began production. Up until this point, porcelain dolls were viewed as toys rather than as collectables. Artists such as Emma Clear first envisioned the porcelain doll as an elaborate and delicate collectable as hobbyist reproduction began in the United States. By 1980 the hobby grew to include Europe, Australia and Great Britain and was of such great interest that large scale seminars were held by companies such as Seely’s and Wandke. Many of these original dolls were created for an adult collector’s market.
Because so many variations of porcelain dolls have been in circulation, their value is contingent upon time period, location, material, manufacturer, quality and condition. The most expensive doll ever sold was a rare and unique Kammer & Reinhardt bisque doll that sold for the hefty price of $373,417. Desirable characteristics for collectors include consistent tone and slight translucency, artist craftsmanship, attention to detail and articulated bodies with wooden joints. Most 1860-1890 fashion dolls go for at least $2,000 and can easily be worth more than $20,000 if from a well-known source such as Bru and Huret, while later, cheaper dolls might be worth only a few hundred dollars.
No matter the price, these fragile little ladies have always engendered wondrous fascination. Still produced in large quantities today in China, they’re here to stay for little girls and collectors worldwide.