Paper dreams

Artefacts of an age where children made their toys

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Te Papa

Ruth was a member of the Girls’ Detective Agency, an adventurous team who tackled crime in the 1950s. They were an active bunch. Depending on what uniform they wore, Ruth and her allies solved mysteries, undertook adventures, lent their hand to office work, or went swimming, walking and horse riding.

Paper dolls such as Ruth were popular with young girls during the 19th and 20th centuries. The colourful paper characters were a blank canvas, allowing growing minds to build elaborate imaginative worlds around the characters.

Drusilla Megget played with Ruth and her companions while growing up in Wellington. By the age of 8, Megget had amassed a collec­tion of dolls, ranging in age from babies to elegant young women. Each character came with a series of outfits in a bound cardboard book, bought from the stationers, but Megget wanted more for her dolls, so she designed an extensive wardrobe of uniforms—among them, the regalia of her ‘Girls’ Detective Agency’—dresses and two-piece outfits by recycling sheets of a 1958 calendar.

“Naming them was very important to me,” Megget wrote. “I made sure I had a full alphabet of names, Anne, Barbara, Clare… In this game, teddy bears and ordinary dolls were roped in too.”

Sometimes the outfits included the activity the doll was doing, such as singing sheet music or knitting. Each colourful outfit was carefully drawn, and designed with tabs to keep the outfits secure on the doll.

Half a century later, in 2007, the curator of history at Te Papa, Stephanie Gibson, jumped into a skip bin to rescue the rare collection thrown out in a black rubbish bag during a clear-out of the Megget house.

Although the property was “filled to the ceiling with social history”—family planning movement pamphlets and political material amongst it—the dolls were a valuable remnant of everyday life, says Gibson.

“They are smaller, humbler objects that often get thrown out. The fact they had survived 50 years was amazing. It was against the odds.”

The dolls are now a popular component of a childhood play collection at Te Papa, harking back to an era when children made toys rather than bought them. Wendy, Queeny, Ruth, Gary, Ron, Pamela, Dianne, Christine, Sue, Sally and Sandra continue to conjure up childhood memories for thousands of visitors, says Gibson. “So many people have related to them that they are actually telling a much bigger story about childhood and imagination.”

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