Not Just A Plaything: French Dolls of the Late 19th Century
By Daniele Gair -
One of the first friends a child ever has is often a simple construction of wood, porcelain, or cloth filled with stuffing and a painted-on smile. For centuries, dolls have not only kept children company, but have reflected how a society sees itself. Today, dolls of every shape, size, and color, made from the most basic materials to the most complex, are collected with an enthusiasm that reaches back to childhood.
Not just simple companions, dolls have also been crafted for very serious, grown-up intentions. Dolls made for religious purposes have been found in many ancient tombs and burial sites, and one can hardly go into a souvenir shop in New Orleans without finding a genuine “voodoo doll.” But some dolls appeal to young and old alike. During the 19th century in France and Europe, French and German doll makers exceeded all others in creating lifelike companions for little girls and ladies. Known as “bébés” and “poupées,” these intricately-crafted dolls served both as playthings and as fashion models for the burgeoning couture industry. Today, these dolls are at the top of the doll-collecting market.
France led the way in doll making from the mid-to-late 19th century. Bébés, or child dolls, and poupées, or lady dolls, led the field in terms of construction and beauty. The main distinction to be made between bébés and poupées is that the former were crafted to look like children and the latter like fashionable ladies. Bébés, in this respect, were quite innovative, as most dolls at the time looked like adults. First made in 1850, they were manufactured by a large number of companies, but the quality and exceptional beauty of the dolls produced by some makers stood head and shoulders above the rest. Dolls crafted by Jumeau, for example, are considered the pinnacle of the bébé genre. Founded in the 1840s, the legendary firm first made papier-mâché, then dolls with bisque, and later porcelain heads. Production of its bébés began in the 1870s, and the company’s stellar reputation is built upon these marvelous figures. The finest and most popular were made from around 1876 to World War I.
Today, bébés command significant prices at auction. In 2005, a Jumeau Triste Bébé, circa 1880, sold at auction for £10,320, or about $15,067 in today’s market. Bébés by other well-known makers such as Bru, Louis Dalloz and Jules Nicholas Steiner are also dearly sought by collectors and have commanded prices as high as $7,250.
And You Thought Barbie Had Style
Thanks to the development of new dyes and the couture enthusiasm of Empress Eugeenie, the Parisian fashion industry boomed in the mid-to-late 19th century. Empress Eugénie was queen consort to Emperor Napoleon III. Renowned for her beauty and excellent style, her promotion of French fashion in the 1850s and ‘60s made her a fashion icon and lead to the birth of haute –couture.
One of the best ways to advertise one’s wares was to make them in miniature and model them on a doll. Also known as the “fashion type” or “lady doll,” fashion dolls were first created, like bébés, around 1850. These dolls were made in variety of ways. The earliest were made with stationary china heads, painted eyes, and bodies made of wood or gutta-percha, which is a natural plastic taken from trees in Southeast Asia. First discovered in 1843, this malleable substance remained flexible once it hardened, and proved to be the perfect material for constructing realistic bodies. Later models feature extremely lifelike glass, or “paperweight,” eyes, swivel heads, leather bodies, articulated or jointed limbs, bisque heads, stitched leather hands, cloth bodies, or any variety or combination.
The purpose of fashion dolls was manifold. To be sure, these dolls were not for the everyday customer, but were sent to the wealthiest patrons, even to members of the royal families of Europe as the first mannequins. Jumeau, known for its bébés, also produced some of the finest fashion dolls of all time, with clothes created by the daughter-in-law of the company’s founder. Today, to own one of these wonderful dolls is a feather in any collector’s cap.
Fashion dolls were not only made to show the latest fashion to affluent women, but were meant to teach the fine art of sewing to their daughters. Sewing was a valuable skill taught to girls of all classes, and according to the “Official Price Guide to Dolls” by Denise Van Patten, girls could dress their dolls in the fashions worn by their mothers by following the patterns published in a monthly magazine like “La Poupée Modélé,” which was printed until 1923. Ms. Van Patten indicates that the dolls also taught another valuable lesson, that of the proper way to dress and carry oneself as a lady. Part of this was the knowing how to use accessories, which the fashion dolls had in droves.
Sound familiar? Today, these dolls can command respectable prices even if damaged, as they tend to be quite rare. For example, a Lily doll from the Lavelle-Peronne Shop, with a wood body and the original paper label, commanded $12,000 at auction, while a rare doll by Alexandre Leverd, though heavily damaged, commanded a comparable price of $10,500. Also, accessories have been known to run in the thousands of dollars, as well.
When searching for that perfect to doll to begin or add to your collection, be ready to inspect it thoroughly. Many dolls have a maker’s mark that should be visible, usually one made of bisque or porcelain. It is also important to know the factors that determine a doll’s desirability: the construction of the face, such as how well molded it is; any damage, such as hairline cracks in a bisque head; originality and rarity; and condition. Condition is particularly tricky, because in many cases, dolls can be “care-worn,” which simply means that the doll was played with and loved by its previous owner or owners. This is perfectly acceptable for vintage and antique dolls in reasonably good condition with original or appropriate clothing and does not diminish the value of the doll to any great extent. However, modern dolls, dating from circa 1980-2000, must be in mint condition.
Above all, do your research. Discover what distinguished one company from another, and find the style of doll with which you feel that special connection.
“Official Price Guide to Dolls” by Denise Van Patten
“The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Dolls,” Vol. 2 by Dorothy, Elizabeth and Evelyn Coleman
The world of collecting is a vast and intriguing one. If there is a particular type of fine antique or collectible you would like to know more about, tell me! Drop me a line at email@example.com.