Cowan's Corner

Collecting Dolls: A Passion Some Never Outgrow

By Wes Cowan
and Ted Sunderhaus

Of the numerous toys adults never seem to grow out of ­ model trains, LEGOS, and remote control cars ­ dolls are among the most popular. It's a popularity that for many has evolved into the passion of collecting.

While little girls have been playing with dolls for thousands of years, it wasn't until the 17th century and the rise of a middle class that dolls became a common child's toy in Europe. These early dolls were mostly made from wood, cloth or leather.

Mass production in the early- to mid-19th century turned doll making from a cottage industry to a major industry. Manufacturers began using different materials, such as composition and papier-mâché for the doll bodies and bisque porcelain, glazed porcelain (china), or papier-mâché for their heads. The eyes were typically made of blown glass. This production corresponded with a vast expansion of the middle class in America as well.

Both Germany and France made the first mass-produced china head and bisque head dolls. While the German makers were scattered around the country in small villages, the French doll makers were highly concentrated in Paris.

The Native Americans produced the first American dolls, and they're still making them today. The colonists also made dolls for their children. Still, early dolls from England ­ made mostly with wax over composition or papier-mâché heads and cloth, leather, wood, or composition bodies ­ were typically imported here prior to the American Civil War. Conversely, the post Civil War market was dominated by Continental makers.

World War I changed the doll market in America when access to all German and most French dolls was denied. This allowed the U.S. manufacturers to capture most of the market. But the Americans produced all composition dolls, modeled after the bisque dolls of the period, but with composition heads and typically celluloid eyes. They were far less fragile than the bisque head dolls of Europe and much cheaper to produce. With a few minor exceptions, even after the war ended the European makers were unable to capture much of the lower and middle dolls markets.

The next major shift in the doll market occurred after World War II with the development of new synthetic materials such as hard plastic and later vinyl in America. The materials along with the devastation in Europe caused by the war spelled the end of European dolls made in mass for the American market.

The field of doll collecting is vast with prices ranging from as little as a few dollars to as much as $100,000 and up for a single doll. Collectors traditionally pay the highest prices for French dolls, but dolls made by the German company Armand Marseille are likely the best buys on the market today; they are high-quality bisque dolls with well made composition bodies. A 10" to 24" German doll can be purchased for $100 to $400.

Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan's Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. You can email him at Article research by Ted Sunderhaus.


This Francois Gauthier closed mouth French socket head doll sold for $4,500.

This rare German bisque Kramer & Reinhardt character child sold for $10,925 in
Jan. 2006.



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