I can still remember the night I first saw her. Her skin was the palest alabaster, her lips the softest camellia pink. My sister and I were allowed to look at her as she sat safely on my mother’s knee. “You can look but not touch,” we were told. She was without doubt the loveliest thing I had ever seen, and I wanted her—just to hold, just to look into those china-blue eyes . . .
Mother was at a Plunket meeting on the night I found her, wrapped lovingly in a wedding dress and nestled in my mother’s collection of secrets: letters from my father, a lock of blond hair, a blue glass bottle of Evening in Paris perfume.
Within days, though, she was looking up at me with a cockeyed and, I hope, forgiving look on her face, from among my own collection of secrets—my mother’s cast-off false teeth, my sister’s scrapbook of angels, my swatch of pink satin pieces.
By then the top of her head had been severed from her face after a nasty tumble. I don’t know when my mother found out, but the weight of that secret stayed with me for years.
Once they were the playthings of children, but porcelain dolls were made for more genteel play than that dished out by my generation of tree and book girls. My mother’s doll was already an antique when I kidnapped her, but that doesn’t mean she was hundreds of years old—more like 50, and made either in France or Germany, the world’s two largest makers of dolls at that time.
Dollmaking is not an ancient tradition. Although the Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires had dolls, some of which date back to the fifth century AD, these were religious accessories which accompanied the dead to their graves, or fertility symbols carried by pregnant women to ensure the health and beauty of their children. It wasn’t until the 17th century that dolls started to be used for play—first the wooden dolls of Scandinavia, Austria and Germany, and later wax, papier mache and porcelain figures.
The 19th century was the golden age of dolls, and the porcelain dolls of this era are the Holy Grail of today’s doll collectors. Ironically, many of these exquisitely beautiful figures were made by small girls, none of whom would have looked like the idealised images of women and girls they were making, and none of whom would have been able to afford to buy one.
Made for the rich, the United States rich particularly, these sweet-faced beauties give little hint of the suffering which went into their creation. In the German city of Sonneberg, one of the dollmaking centres, many of the thousands of doll workers lived in abject poverty, with up to 25 people living in a single bedroom. Tuberculosis was common, and the dust from sanding the porcelain faces caused other lung diseases. Many of the children making the dolls would have died as a result.
Dollmakers were not slow to see that their products had commercial potential which went beyond play. Some served as the forerunners to today’s mail-order fashion catalogues, carrying the latest designs from European courts to the English, and from the English to the colonies.
One doll, which was sent on regular runs between the French and English courts, had her own passport, which both sides recognised, and even in wartime weapons had to be put aside when this particular doll, resplendent in the latest haute couture, was carried across the battlefields. At the more humble end of the market, dolls carried advertising messages on their bodies, and flour companies printed rag doll patterns on their cotton sacks.
Neither were early doll manufacturers above using gimmicks to move stock. Some dolls had small built-in cupboards in which their clothes could be stored; others swam, threw kisses, even breathed. But the ultimate achievement, the talking doll, did not appear until the mid-1800s. The first models had a crude mechanism which produced such a vague sound that it was used indiscriminately for dolls and toys alike—lions, sheep and fine lady dolls all delivered vocalisations which fell somewhere between roars and bleats.
According to some histories, it was Thomas Alva Edison who finally made dolls talk on a commercial scale. In the late 1880s he managed to downscale his phonograph invention to doll size, and, shrewd businessman that he was, invented one mechanism which cursed and scolded and another which recited pious sermons and Bible verses.
Nineteen eighty four. The year of Orwell’s black predictions, and the year Cabbage Patch Kids stormed the world. In the United States, the birthplace of fads, tens of thousands of frenzied mums and dads wrenched the cuddly creatures from each others’ arms. Some organised themselves into consumer assault squads, battling to the front of the queues and throwing boxes of the squashy dolls over the heads of the crowds to waiting back-ups.
Real children, forgotten in the rush, were nearly trampled to death.
Around the world it was the same story. As millions of small adoptive parents (Cabbage Patch Kids are not sold, they are available for adoption at a price) raised their right hand and solemnly swore to love their dolls with all their hearts, millions more each night cried themselves to a lonely Kid-less sleep.
Shadowy eastern counterfeiters rushed in with lookalikes. Others launched themselves onto the accessory market—one US orthodontist made a fortune supplying braces for the toothed models.
To those without the urge to parent little creatures with an unmistakable likeness to John Denver, Cabbage Patch frenzy must have been as bewildering as Beatlemania was to the previous generation. But to Coleco, the company which made them, the sound of overloaded cash registers must have been sweet music indeed. That year the Kids made $540 million for them, taking them from being an also-ran toy company to among the top handful in the world. Since 1983, 67 million “adoptions” have taken place, and 85 per cent of all US households with children aged between two and eight have at least one.
By 1988, Coleco was struggling, and Cabbage Patch Kids had slipped well down the children’s list of must-haves. Now a new company, Hasbro, tills the Patch. The sales push is back on, and the Kids are on their way up the local market again.
It’s difficult to put a finger on why customers queue to buy one doll, while another languishes. What is it about a particular doll, whether a modern creation like Cabbage Patch or Barbie, or an antique, that separates it from the others and touches the heart of the child—or adult—who has chosen it? What is it about antique dolls that has made them the treasures they now are, their monetary worth in some cases as much as a deposit on a house? The right feel, the right look, is everything—and the right one can make millions.
One New Zealand dollmaker who seems to have hit on the right formula is Jan McLean, and this year her success has grown at a rate that has staggered the local doll world.
The jovial former nurse keeps herself and nine other people busy producing porcelain dolls in a chaotic two-storeyed house in Dunedin. Downstairs Jan and her sister Gaynor—her manager—edge between boxes of dolls’ hats and clothes and piles of legs and arms. Upstairs, daughter Kimberlee and porcelain worker Aron Murtagh are pouring slip, the liquid porcelain clay, into moulds, working against tight deadlines to meet the target of eight to ten completed dolls each week. The business also employs a second porcelain worker, a dressmaker, a shoemaker, a milliner and two doll chair makers.
In the living room, standing, seated, pouting, pert, are the dolls: Pansy, Poppy, Primrose, Marigold. They are part of a series of 10 which Jan calls the Flowers of the Heart Collection.
These dolls have nothing to do with children. They are destined for the huge new doll collectors’ market which has developed in the United States over the last 20 years. They are big dolls—almost young women—but it is their faces which seize your attention. They are at the same time vulnerable and saucy . . . enigmatic. They are the Elle Macphersons of the doll world.
“It can take me weeks before I’m satisfied with a face,” says Jan. She works from magazine photographs—”or any face which is around me at the time.”
Once she has finished the heads, arms, and legs, and made the moulds, her team assembles the dolls. Bubble-bags full of legs go north to shoemaker Joyce Nicholson, and after Jan has designed the costume prototypes a dressmaker goes into production. When the run is finished, the moulds are broken—guaranteeing that the limited editions will hold their rarity value.
Locally, these dolls are worth $2000 to $3000, but they sell for double that in the United States. This year Jan won one of the top US dollmaking awards, and she has been invited to exhibit at a Disneyworld event where dolls can sell for up to $US35,000.
She can’t explain why her dolls have been such a success. A combination of naivety and sexiness, perhaps. Marigold is a good example: hands on hips, tumbling red tresses framing a pale face; brazen, but vulnerable. That elusive, Mona Lisa magic.
In Rose Hill’s shop in central Auckland the most expensive doll in the land is on sale. About a metre tall, roughly the size of a three-year-old, she sits in her own chair, and has a price tag of $60,000. She is the sort of doll which collectors will risk going into substantial debt to buy.
Rose Hill is one of the handful of doll dealers in this country who buy and sell antique dolls—dolls made before 1925. Rose’s shop is a doll world far removed from the toy store. Even If dolls were made for children, this is a place where children’s fiddling fingers are absolutely not welcome. “These dolls have survived because, like other dolls of their age, they were only brought out on Sandays—perhaps not even that often,” says Rose. They are not dolls to be pushed around; not now, not ever.
The doll with the $60,000 tag is French—”a long face Jumeau,” Rose explains. All doll people refer to dolls by the maker and model; this one is from Jumeau, a famed Parisian company of last century. “Long face” describes the babylike jowls of her porcelain face. The doll is from the estate of a collector who recently died—and if she’s not sold soon she will go back to a lonely life in a vault.
I wince as Rose grasps the doll by its face and turns it around. “Lesson number one in doll handling,” she says. “If you’re going to drop it, the rest of it may survive the fall, but if you drop the head . . .”
The back of the head, or the shoulders, are the first places collectors look. That’s where dollmakers put their trademark and the doll’s model number. Whole books are devoted to deciphering these marks for collectors.
“Excuse me,” she says delicately, and with a swift, sickening move lifts the top of the doll’s head off and peers into the inner workings. It’s like decapitating a small child. “I’m doing this to show you that the eye setting is original; that there are no disguised cracks.”
It matters. The price of a doll depends on several interlocking factors. The rarity of the doll is important, of course. The pedigree of previous owners can also add value to the doll. But value mainly depends on how well the doll was made originally, and how it has survived its life journey.
A cracked finger may mean little; a hairline crack in the head may reduce the doll’s value by half. If new parts have been added, it’s not original, and people who know their dolls aren’t going to risk a bad investment.
Doll collecting, like all collecting, is an obsession: the thrill of the hunt; the joy of the find. At the rarefied end there are the collectors who dream of the sweet-faced porcelain dolls of France—or the German ones which, equally beautiful but a fraction of the price, nearly drove the French out of the market last century. These dolls and the other antiques—the wooden dolls brought by settler children, the rag dolls of my mother’s generation—reflect our colonial history. But they are disappearing. Children may no longer get a chance to break them, but American buyers, with a favourable exchange rate and an eye on a bargain, have cruised through our auction rooms, dealers’ stashes and private collections, cleaning up.
Some doll collectors go for a whole string of one type of doll. Others, like bird spotters, will seek the best example they can afford of each type. Rose estimates there are at least 30 to 40 significant collections in New Zealand—”and by significant, I mean collections with more than one french doll in them. Serious collectors are very, very serious.
“To get that French doll with a closed mouth, that one with certain eyes . . . they’ll go to extreme lengths to get their hands on something they want.” Such as? “Look, I have to talk in generalities here,” she tells me. “People in the doll world follow specific dolls—they would know exactly who I was talking about. But I know collectors who will raise money on their houses to buy the doll they want, and will endanger their marriages to do so. I know some who will nominate collectors who will be allowed to buy their dolls when they die—and will name others their dolls must never go to.”
And the most valuable New Zealand collections? She pauses. “Perhaps half a million dollars,” she says. “And think of the work those women have put into building a collection like that. That would represent 20 years’ collecting. And that means going to garage sales every Saturday morning; it means diligently following all the auctions, being first into the private sale advertisements in the newspapers every morning, going to all the doll club meetings, all the shows, reading all the doll magazines, going to all the church fetes, jumble sales, and going around the junk shops as regular as clockwork. And maybe, just maybe coming across one really special doll every five years.”
Life might have been easier for Joan and Jack Kingston if they hadn’t collected dolls so diligently over the last 28 years. As I approach their house there are signs everywhere warning intruders of their sophisticated security systems. Doll collecting has meant they can never go on holiday and leave the house unguarded, and it has meant building 33 metres of glass cabinets, and installing dehumidifiers to protect their thousand or so dolls from Auckland’s bugs and climate.
The effect of standing under the unblinking gaze of 2000 eyes looking out from behind glass in this specially lit room is unnerving. “Some people find they can’t stay in here,” says Jack Kingston, noticing my unease. The dolls’ room takes up an entire floor below the Kingstons’ house, and it is a collector’s heaven. Many of the haughty aristocrats of the French and German dollmaking world of the last century are represented here. Famous names abound—as well as Jumeau, there’s Simon and Halbig, Kestner, Heubach, Armand Marseille. There are rag dolls and metal-headed dolls, dolls made of glazed china, of papier mache, of wax, of various combinations. Dolls with flirty eyes and pouty lips and little sharky teeth, and ones with three faces which can be swivelled around—one smiling, one crying, the third laughing.
“Here’s a dear little one,” says Joan Kingston, showing me a wooden jointed doll, only half an inch long.
This doll, like other wooden ones from 18th century Germany and Austria, is one of the earliest dolls made as playthings. They’re not uncommon in New Zealand since they were tiny enough to be tucked, unnoticed, into the pockets of migrating settler children.
If you know how to read these dolls, history speaks. Some of the wooden dolls, I notice, have patches on their faces—a grim reflection of the smallpox epidemics which devastated Europe at the time these dolls were made: the patches mimic those worn by the scarred survivors. Joan shows me another: a square-faced, baby-jowled child. This face is a classic, a face which has been copied by many dollmakers since the 1880s. Known as the Fiamingo Head, it is based on a bust by a Flemish Vatican sculptor of the 1600s.
As the Kingstons show me around the collection and point out things they love about their dolls—”that lovely pink kid leather body, those iridescent shoes”—I realise they know the personal stories of many of them. “See that one,” Joan says, pointing to a doll that is still in its original box. “That was bought for a small girl who was badly burned. Her father went out and bought her this doll, but by the time he reached the hospital she had died. Fifty years later he brought it to us.”
Clearly, the Kingstons’ collection is more than a hobby, but why dolls?
“We’re preserving our heritage,” Joan tells me. “They weren’t made for eternity—they were made as toys. But they’ve outlasted their time. And unlike other collections, which get boring, they have personality, they are alive.”
As I watch Sandy Homer making dolls in her Auckland studio, I can see this life emerging in her hands. The Doll and Porcelain Company is the largest doll reproduction studio in Auckland, possibly in the country, and Sandy has been in business here for 12 years. Every week, some 80 students—men and women—come to learn how to make dolls. Around the country, students attend courses at 40 other studios. They come to make copies of original porcelain dolls.
Around us are parts of dolls at various stages of completion; ghoulish trays of arms and legs, eyeless skulls. At what stage of making, I ask Sandy, does a doll come to life: when does it get its soul? “You’ll see,” she says, reaching for a mould of a German antique Steiner doll to copy. Over the next few days I watch her take this doll’s face through its stages: first the blank eyeless face straight from the mould, through several firing stages, to having its face coloured, and soon, to the painting of the face details. We are approaching birth. The lips are painted on, then the eyelashes, but it is when the eyes are put in that the doll suddenly and startlingly comes alive.
As we talk, young girls who have just finished a holiday course are leaving. It is wet outside, and each small girl, her doll inside a plastic bag, is carrying it tenderly, cradling the head like a new baby.
Once,in a Tokyo megatoystore, a small Japanese girl ran up to me, talking excitedly. When she saw I didn’t understand, she took my hand and pulled me to a display of dolls. She clapped her hands: immediately every doll cried. Ecstatically, her eyes met mine, and for that brief moment we understood each other perfectly.
Looking back, I realise that here is one of the reasons for the doll’s universal appeal. Dolls look like humans, but unlike humans they don’t say unkind things; and they always behave themselves.
For some children, a doll is more than a companion with which they can hold intimate and secret conversations; it is a partner to share the pain. Knowing this, therapists and police use dolls to help children identify the unspeakable in cases of domestic violence or molestation.
Everyone has their own story of the child who, in the late stages of her mother’s pregnancy, takes to jumping on the stomach of her favourite doll. A doll imitates and represents the real world, but it is capable of being bullied, neglected and even destroyed without danger. It’s okay to love the doll one day—and kill or maim it on another. No matter what you do, it will always keep its smile. It turns the other cheek, perfectly.
A woman brought to a doll hospital a fragment of a celluloid head. As a young girl in a concentration camp she had carried the doll—her only companion—through her long days and nights. Now all that was left was a piece small enough to hold in her hand. Could the doll be restored? It could, she was told. In the same way that an archaeologist restores the whole from a tiny part, the doll was rebuilt, and the woman was able to reclaim its memories and its comfort.
One afternoon in Masterton, 25 years ago, Pauleen Adamiak came home from school to find that in preparation for a move to Palmerston North her parents had sold everything—including her dolls. Now, years later, the Auckland nurse is publicly advertising to find them. “Why do they still mean so much to me?” she asks. “I’ll tell you. When I came home that day and found my dolls gone, I felt my childhood had been wiped out. You know you can’t go back, but you have to have something to hold onto. We are living in insecure times—I want the dolls back.”
To these women—and to many others—dolls are talismans. An adult world is a complex one, full of confusion; the dolls are a way of returning to memories of childhood innocence and imagined security.
I wonder if today’s dolls will hold the same meaning for their owners a couple of decades from now.
Last year, New Zealanders spent over eight million dollars on dolls. With Christmas coming, the shelves are full of the latest offerings. They’re a strange mixture of charm and functionality—products of the endless search for novelty, no matter how bizarre. Here is one which could be a hot water bottle. “Fill her with warm water. Your loving touch makes her wiggle and squirm just like a real baby,” the sales pitch reads. The message on the box of the next one, aimed at the three-year-old-plus age group, says: “Say No to Drugs”. It’s a glum message for someone who stills wants to believe in the childhood innocence that dolls are supposed to represent.
This one crawls and bawls. I empty the batteries out of my tape recorder and put them in her back. I lower her to the ground and let her loose. She stumbles along the floor like a wounded animal, emitting a noisy mechanical whirring and a distant baby cry: “Wa wa wa, Mama Mama, (stumble) wawawaaa, mamamama.” I feel no nurturing urge, only a furtive desire to put her out of her misery.
Ian Cooper knows his dolls.He has been a toy buyer for 30 years, and as national buyer for the Toy Warehouse merchandising chain, he knows what pulls people’s heart strings. “Television advertising,” he states emphatically. “The doll world is a fashion market. It is absolutely and totally television and peer pressure driven. One day we’ll have queues at our door demanding a product. Then, suddenly, someone will turn the light off and we’ll have to cut the price in half to sell it.
“Unfortunately,” he says wistfully, “there hasn’t been a megaproduct since Cabbage Patch Kids. Nothing that’s come near it.” And Barbie? Is she still a megastar? He brightens. “Oh yes,” he says enthusiastically. “Barbie’s still queen. She’s queen of the world.”
In Tawa, Wellington, Leigh Nixon agrees. She’s 22, and she has 500 Barbies, each one of them known personally to her. She was given her first Barbie lookalike at three, and one thing simply led to another, until now they take up a large part of one room. Most of her dolls lounge on the shelves, but 30 or so are kept in suspended animation in their boxes: pristine, untouched by children’s hands. Should some careless person inadvertently open one of these boxes, that doll will immediately lose two thirds of its collector’s value. Such are the harsh rules of collecting.
This is a cheerful collection, and Leigh’s mother’s dolls share the same room. Joan Parker’s are modern dolls too—and on one shelf I see my own childhood favourite: the New Zealand-made Pedigree walkie-talkie of the 1960s.
“Look at this one,” says Joan Parker, lifting down a doll and ripping the front off its chest. All its organs are revealed and, mesmerised, I watch its blood coursing around its vinyl arteries. “Now here’s a good one,” her daughter says, cranking the arm of a smallish doll. As she does so the doll’s head extrudes long locks of hair. “Or this.” With a twist of her wrist, Barbie’s younger sister Skipper—caught forever between childhood and adolescence—suddenly develops breasts.
“Really,” Leigh Nixon says, “I see myself as more of a doll lover than a collector.” She shuns the hard commercial edge that being a collector implies.
What really puzzles her are the breathless phone calls she gets from people checking to see if their Barbie is worth a fortune. A recent magazine article said that a Number One Barbie—the first Barbie ever made, which came out in 1959 with a striped swimsuit—was worth $1000. You could tell if you had the right Barbie, the article said, by the holes in her feet. Leigh’s phone ran hot with callers. All had dolls which fitted the description—at least the bit about having holes in the feet. Leigh sighs, exasperated. “All Barbies have holes in their feet,” she says. “There is no Number One Barbie in this country. None.”
Barbies may not be in the same class as dolls made by Bru or Jumeau, but they have certainly made a fortune for their manufacturer, Mattel. According to one of the company’s press releases, 90 per cent of all American girls between the ages of three and 11 own one Barbie or more, usually more. If all the Barbies were laid head to foot, they would circle the Earth three and a half times—and Barbie herself is only the start of the story. For the discriminating Barbie buyer Mattel provides equally endless accessories—the ever faithful Ken who has never yet, in Barbie’s 32 years, managed to get her to the altar in spite of her numerous wedding gowns; the Ferrari, the credit cards, the clothes designed by the world’s leading designers. Since Barbie’s birth, Mattel has used 75 million yards of fabric—making the company the fourth biggest manufacturer of women’s clothing in the United States.
Barbie isn’t simply a doll. When Mattel decreed that Barbie had turned 25, New Yorkers, making the ultimate gesture of acceptance, renamed Fifth Avenue “Barbie Boulevard” for the day. She is an American icon.
She’s our top doll too, selling eight times better than any other doll on the New Zealand market.
Over the years, though, Barbie has been accused of being a negative role model. To feminists she is too much a man’s idea of perfection, with her voluptuous bust, tiny waist and impossibly long legs—”We worked out that if Barbie were a human with legs that long she’d be seven-and-a-half feet tall,” one toy buyer says. It is just this sort of thing which might cause little girls to feel inadequate, propelling them at top speed towards adulthood at best, or to anorexia.
To others, with her fetish for designer clothes and consumerism generally, she was the original yuppie who would force us to believe that materialism was the spiritual goal in life.
The question has to be asked, therefore, of someone who has been living with hundreds of Barbies for her whole life: Has this turned Leigh Nixon into a woman in pursuit of a life dedicated to the Barbie style? Into, well . . . a bubblehead?
“Poof,” says Nixon, dismissing the comment good-humouredly.
“On the other hand, I know that some people take Barbie very seriously,” she adds. Like the woman who was recently reported having undergone a series of operations to try to achieve the Barbie look. Nixon shakes her head. “I went to a Barbie Convention in the States a few years ago. Some women went dressed as Barbie—some had had Barbie’s specially designed fabrics printed and made into dresses for themselves. Those people are very, very, devoted. I couldn’t consider doing that.”
The essence of the Barbie appeal is that her owner can participate in her life: go off to band practice with her, leave home in the sports car, operate on people. Back at the start, she may have been a nurse and an air stewardess, but she became a brain surgeon too—and an astronaut—long before the first American woman was sent into space. This year, for those of us who want to be right at the cutting edge of career changes, she came out in military uniform just before the start of the Gulf War. Through Barbie, a girl can do anything.
To her owners Barbie represents adventure. And, says Leigh Nixon firmly, given the choice as a child between being a little mother of dolls or sharing Barbie’s grown-up, glamorous life with not a nappy in sight, she knew which option she wanted.
“After all,” she says, “too much reality is boring isn’t it.”
It occurs to me that she might just have put her finger on the essence of any doll’s appeal.