Dolls are known in all cultures and are one of the oldest and most widespread forms of TOYS. A doll in its most basic form is a cone-shaped figure which can be made of clay, wood, stone, bone, cloth or different natural materials. It is believed that in prehistoric societies, dolls made in a human likeness had a magic or religious significance. At what point these figures became toys for children is not clear, but discarded doll-like figures were doubtless picked up and used for PLAY.


Small human figures made of wood and clay have been found in Egyptian graves from 2000 B.CE.; dolls of clay, marble and alabaster have been found in children's graves of ancient

Girl with a Doll (Franzi) (1910), Erich Heckel. Like many works of art, Heckel's painting explores the boundary between childhood and adulthood. Courtesy of .

Greece and Rome; dolls are also referred to in some written sources from the early European Middle Ages. Doll-makers can be traced to Nuremberg in Germany from as early as 1413. Several depictions of German doll-makers exist from the fifteenth century. The earliest doll-makers carved dolls out of wood and some even attempted to provide the toys with moveable limbs. Germany and France were early centers of European doll manufacture. Since the fifteenth century, both toy dolls and fashion dolls–dolls attired in the latest costumes and coiffures and commissioned so that European courts could follow fashionable trends–were produced in Paris. Several oil paintings of the early seventeenth century depict noble children playing with wooden dolls dressed in finery. A colored drawing in the British Museum in London of 1585 shows an Indian girl with a European doll, presumably taken to America by the early English settlers.


Wood is the oldest material used for making dolls for sale. Turned dolls were mass-produced in Sonneberg in Thüringen from the seventeenth century. Wooden dolls were very popular throughout the eighteenth century. The head and body were carved by professional doll-makers and the face and hair were painted directly onto the wood.

A mixture of paper, sawdust, plaster and glue, called composition, was developed around 1800 as a cheap alternative to wood. It could be formed under pressure, allowing for the mass production of dolls. At the toy center in Sonneberg heads were pressed in papier mâché after 1810, while bodies were made of a soft material and then stuffed. Papier mâché heads could also be overlaid with wax to give them a more lifelike appearance. For a time dolls with heads made entirely of wax were much in demand, but these were costly and were superseded by porcelain dolls. After about 1830 porcelain manufacturers, especially in Germany, France and later Denmark, started serious production of dolls, and dolls with cast heads became very popular.

The glazed china used in the 1860s was succeeded by unglazed biscuitware, which, especially in its pink coloring, acquired a very lifelike appearance and became enormously popular. Coiffures were ingeniously modeled and precisely followed contemporary fashions. After 1870 wigs and glass eyes became common. Beginning in 1880, some manufacturers began to sell dolls that could close their eyes. At the same time jointed dolls were introduced with bodies and limbs of papier mâché, the head and limbs being attached by strong inbuilt elastic. Commercially produced rag dolls were also introduced by English and American producers in the nineteenth century.

The synthetic material celluloid was discovered around 1870 and was used for doll manufacture after the end of the nineteenth century. This material became brittle with age and was extremely flammable. However, it was cheap and was used for the mass production of dolls until the mid-1950s at German, French, American, and Japanese factories. More durable materials such as vinyl and plastic overtook celluloid as the preferred materials for dolls in the second half of the twentieth century.

Doll Types

The oldest dolls were all adult "lady" dolls representing well-dressed women. The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 saw the first appearance of infant dolls with round heads and soft bowed limbs created by the London doll-maker Mme. Montanari. The "baby" doll was born. The golden age of doll manufacturers was 1860 to 1890, when demand for dolls rose and new and elegant types were constantly being produced. Many patents were taken out at this time as mechanical dolls which could walk, sing and dance were invented. The most desirable and expensive types were and are the French fashion Parisienne dolls, which are equipped with exclusive wardrobes.

Paper dolls were produced in Europe–especially in England, Germany and France–from the early nineteenth century. Paper dolls are cut-out dolls with matching clothes printed on card and models were often inspired by famous people of the time. Perhaps as a reaction to perfect, expressionless faces which did not appeal to the child's imagination, dolls' faces with individual characteristics reflecting natural child types were modeled around 1900. The first character doll was the so-called Kaiser baby, created by the German doll manufacturer Kämmer and Reinhardt. Another very popular doll was the Dream Baby, produced in 1913 by the German firm Armand Marseille. Dolls with an ethnic appearance–especially Asian and African–were also popular; as were celebrity dolls representing royals and actors.

At the end of the nineteenth century the majority of dolls represented children, both boys and girls, of about ten years old. By the beginning of the twentieth century, baby dolls had taken the upper hand and remained popular until the 1950s, when adult dolls returned with a new form of fashion doll: BARBIE. Later came Action Man, a series of military dolls for boys, which broke what had for generations been a female monopoly on doll use. Famous dolls of the twentieth century included the Kewpie Doll (1912), Bye-lo-baby, the Million Dollar Baby (1922), Barbie (1959), and the Cabbage Patch Kids (c. 1980).

Role Models

Products of their times, different dolls cannot be judged without reference to wider economic and social conditions. Dolls are created for play and recreation, but their purpose is also to prepare girls for their later roles as mothers and housewives.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, children were regarded as small, unfinished, adults who had to be trained for adult life. Miniature tools from the adult world were designed to familiarize them with that world and prepare them for the tasks that would later await them. In the nineteenth century a young woman's task was to marry and look after the home as mother and housewife. Marriage was the only conceivable career and dress was of the utmost importance. Luxurious dress was the only effective way for a woman to show her social standing. Lady dolls of the nineteenth century were pure extravaganzas, especially the Paris dolls with their sumptuous wardrobes, with clothes in the latest French fashion and a range of personal articles including a fan, dressing table set, parasol–and even a dance card for a doll's ball. Everything needed to make the home function was part of the doll's life–doll's furniture, dinner service, kitchen articles and similar items.

Children's play mirrors to some degree what they see in the home. Some evidence suggests that baby dolls have faded into the background as women enter the workplace and fewer look after children at home. In 2003 young girls are primarily interested in mannequin dolls. Barbie dolls reflect the new female role as the active, independent, career woman, but also the "dream girl next door" that every girl wishes to be. The Barbie doll is an expression of late-twentieth-century CONSUMER CULTURE, and apart from glamorous clothes its accessories include things like a mobile phone, laptop computer, and sports car.


A doll is not simply an impersonal play object. It becomes the child's natural and trustworthy guide in daily life. Children become attached to their dolls and share with them their deepest wishes, sorrows, and joys. A doll is given a name and an identity of its own. Dolls often cannot, therefore, simply be thrown out when the age of play has passed.

In the twentieth century, a market for dolls began to emerge among adult collectors. As a result, the price of antique and finely made dolls began to grow. The price of a doll depends on its type, make, age, and condition. It also matters whether the doll's clothing is original, whether it has other accessories and whether it has its original box. Collectors and museums are often interested in the doll's provenance. It is also important to ensure that the doll has not been restored, that wig and eyes have not been replaced and that arms, legs and fingers are original and intact. Historical dolls can be seen at the following museums of cultural history, special museums and private collections: Legoland, Bil-lund, Denmark; Musée de la Poupée, Paris, France; Coburger Puppenmuseum, Coberg, Germany; Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, London and Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh in the United Kingdom; Yokohama Doll Museum, Yokohama, Japan; and Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art, Bellevue, Washington, DC and Wenham Historical Association and Museum, Wenham, Massachusetts, in the United States.

See also: Construction Toys; Infant Toys; Teddy Bear; Toy Soldiers.


Bristol, Olivia. 1977. Dolls: A Collector's Guide. London: De Agostini Editions Ltd.

Coleman, Dorothy S., Elizabeth A. Coleman, and Evelyn J. Coleman. 1968. The Collector's Encyclopedia of Dolls. New York: Crown Publishers Inc.

Good fellow, Caroline. 1993. The Ultimate Doll Book. New York: Dorling Kindersley.

King, Constance Eileen. 1977. The Collector's History of Dolls. New York: St. Martins Press.