Often written off as charming novelties of childhood, paper dolls can serve as powerful indicators of the drastic sociopolitical changes occurring in the early 20th century. Like many toys, they reflect the cultural values of their creators and their consumers, providing insight into the lives of women and children during a tumultuous political era. During my time at The Strong National Museum of Play, I was able to examine a wide variety of paper dolls created between 1900 and 1940 as part of my ongoing effort to understand the social influence of female illustrators. Notably, these years encompass a great deal of change within the United States, including World War I, increasingly strict immigration laws, women’s suffrage, and the Great Depression. In keeping with the changing times, paper dolls encouraged childhood play involving not only the traditional trappings of motherhood, but also the growing sense of internationalization and ethnocentrism endemic to the period.
For most people, paper dolls bring forth images of cherubic cheeks and frilly dresses and in many ways, this is correct. During the early 20th century, these dolls were primarily distributed through women’s magazines targeted at mothers, such as Ladies’ Home Journal (1883–2016) and Woman’s Home Companion (1873–1957), both part of a group of homemaker publications sometimes referred to as the Seven Sisters. Within these magazines, there were often pages of advice on parenthood, along with activities for children such as comic strips and paper dolls. While there were many different ongoing series, these publications tended to feature work from a group of illustrators who would alternate producing cover images, story illustrations, and cut-out activities.
Sheila Young and Grace Drayton, creators of the Lettie Lane and Dolly Dingle series respectively, were two trained artists who primarily made their living through illustrating for these magazines. Although extremely different in visual affect, both of their doll series covered similar material. Frequently focused on marriage and children, Dolly and Lettie attended weddings and baby showers, helped in the kitchen, and played with their friends and siblings. Notably, they both also joined the Red Cross, and traveled abroad in Europe and Asia. Dolly Dingle even acted as a pilot on one such trip, despite her toddleresque proportions and ruddy cheeks. This demonstrates the tensions within the lives of their creators, depicting both the well-traveled, independent “New Woman” of the Roaring Twenties and the strong social pressure to conform to the cult of domesticity that still dominated middle-class white women’s social circles at this time. For the women illustrating these toys, this struggle was often a matter of personal experience as their own career aspirations often contrasted with the lived experiences of their housewife target audience.
My work continues to ask questions about the long-term effects of these toys, both on the lives of the people producing them and on the lives of the children consuming them. However, complete sets of paper dolls can be difficult to find. They were printed on thin paper and often destroyed in the process of play. Resources like the library and museum collections at The Strong have made this research possible. They hold a wonderful and broad collection of both Lettie Lane and Dolly Dingle, among many other popular series from this period. The breadth of this collection made it possible for me to amass a body of research that illustrates this concept through material means, allowing me to incorporate far more dolls into my analysis than would be otherwise possible. Without The Strong’s efforts to collect and preserve this material, much of it would remain unrecorded and outside of the realm of public knowledge or access. Their surrounding collections of paper dolls houses, furniture, and comic strips help to create a contextual basis for understanding these objects both as toys and as socially active agents, a critical element in the success of my ongoing work.
Article by Rachael Kane, 2021 Mary Valentine and Andrew Cosman Research Fellow at The Strong National Museum of Play.