Colleen Tunnicliff

Hello, dolly

Their faces may change with the years, but dolls still keep their winsome charm,
delighting all who play with them, collect them, make them and, above all, love them.

Written by       Photographed by Michael Schneider

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.

[Chapter Break]

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.

[Chapter Break]

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.