The Real History of Dolls Is Surprising

I am, even by the mildest of measures, a doll fanatic. Growing up, I collected more than 200 of them — mostly porcelain-faced girl dolls, but I also had an articulated doll that stood four feet tall, tiny dolls from Zimbabwe and Russia, dollhouse dolls you could fit comfortably in a palm, and a profusion of Barbies. Friends refused to sleep in my room due to the rows of fixed glass eyes watching them from the wall. The fact that today is National Barbie Day — a holiday dedicated to celebrating the invention of perhaps the most famous doll of them all — is clearly an opportunity for those of us who were doll-lovers in our youth (and remain fond of them now, even if our childhood companions are now a bit dust-covered and sun-faded) to have a bit of fun, and learn a bit of history. Because the doll is hardly a modern phenomenon — it's actually one of the most ancient of all playthings. Bu they're not just playthings — because, for much of history, dolls may not have actually been for children at all.

Doll enthusiasts have always been among us. Queen Victoria, for instance, famously adored her dolls from her youth. But whichever way our tastes might run — from dollhouse dolls, to paper confections, to big solid bisque-faced dolls with blinking eyes, or indeed to Barbie herself — the history always reveals something a little unusually, odd or off.

Dolls Existed In Ancient Egypt

If we go by the historical dolls that have been unearthed by researchers, we've been attracted to playthings that look like small versions of ourselves for quite some time. One of the most famous, and most beautiful, dolls from antiquity was discovered in 1964 in Italy, in the 2nd century grave of a small child. The doll itself was articulated and made out of hard wood, styled to look like an adult, with no clothing but a realistic face, hair and wide hips. It's presumed that the doll may have had clothes that simply didn't survive the intervening years in the coffin with her small mistress.

Dolls may, however, go back even further. The British Museum has a rag doll in its possession from ancient Egypt (possibly created in the 1st century), that has implausibly survived the centuries; it may once have had beads sewn onto it for hair accessories. And in 2004, a dig in Italy revealed a stonewear doll head, buried with miniature kitchen accessories, that dated back over 4,000 years. The problem with historical dolls, though, is that it's sometimes difficult to tell whether or not they were actually children's toys. Ancient Egyptian tombs, for instance, have yielded a lot of "paddle dolls," like the one pictured above — female figurines of a certain type with symbols for fertility written on them, that were likely used in ritual rather than play — and the Willendorf Venus, the famous prehistoric figure from around 25,000 BC, was almost definitely used for fertility rites and not for fun.

Dollhouse Dolls Were Actually Part Of Domestic "Training"

This may surprise you, but the first dollhouses weren't just supposed to be places for dolls to live. At all. They were conceived of as art objects for the very wealthy, or as teaching aids to help small girls learn about their future domestic responsibilities.

In the 17th century, in Holland and elsewhere, a trend developed for "baby houses" — elaborate miniature houses in cabinets upholstered and furnished with impeccable taste by noble women. One of the most famous, that of the wealthy Petronella Oortman, is filled with furniture commissioned to scale, including glass and silver utensils. It was both an amusement and an extraordinary display of wealth. Dolls were secondary, an element of the tableau rather than an essential part in it; the decoration was the essence.

The other, parallel development of the era was the "Nuremberg kitchen," which The Atlantic calls "the opposite of a dollhouse as a dream world of fantasy." Nuremberg kitchens were functional kitchens with all the accoutrements and utensils a girl would be expected to use as a married adult. That's because the kitchens were designed as an instructional tool, to explain how everything worked. This wasn't play; this was work. Dolls rarely popped up in Nuremberg kitchens, and it wasn't until much later — when doll production on a small scale became commercially viable and dollhouses ceased to be just an adult woman's toy — that they became a part of the natural dollhouse milieu.

Paper Dolls Were Created To Satirize Elites & Educate Children About Vanity

Throughout history, if you didn't have access to a physical doll, you could always make your own out of paper or some thin materials, to "dress" with other slips. But that, of course, is dependent on having paper ready to hand. The Paper Doll Artists Guild notes that the the first real paper dolls emerged out of Europe in the 17th century, but they likely weren't toys; most of them seem to be representations of famous people or "types," meant to be used to entertain adults and satirize the nobility. The idea developed into "jumping jack" paper dolls that would jerk at the pull of a string, which doubtless gave a lot of people fun at parties.

The most famous mass-produced early paper doll for children was called Little Fanny, which was first sold in London in 1812 — and she, too wasn't necessarily a toy for children's play. While she did come with a vast array of clothes and toys, her accompanying story held that vain Fanny went to the park with a nurse and was gradually robbed of all her finery. Fanny learned her lesson and at the end of the story is seen reading an improving book.

Modern Porcelain Dolls Evolved From Fashion Publicity Stunts

Fashion plays a huge role in the development of the modern doll, specifically the bisque or porcelain-headed doll. In the 18th century, as France became the fashionable center of Europe and new clothing evolved beyond the exclusive province of the nobility, dress designers searched for a new way to advertise their wares to people in other countries — a way to convey the details of their clothing that was more real than flat catalogue images but not as expensive as human models. The solution: the poupee de mode, or Queen Anne doll. The tradition began, according to one account, with the Hotel Rambouillet, where two dolls of different sizes, both named Pandora, were dressed in miniatures of the latest fashions and shipped to other countries to display their wares.

Their popularity was such that they were given special dispensation to travel between countries even when they were technically at war — as in 1712, when French fashion dolls were allowed to enter England with a special passport despite a goods embargo. Fashion historian Katy Werlin notes that, while the dolls largely disappeared in the 19th century, they came back in 1945 in Paris, where haute couture producers put on a "fashion show" of 27 dolls dressed in elaborate designs to help the war relief effort. It was a massive success, raised over a million francs, and went on tour to America.