I like to imagine the voyage of a single porcelain doll I owned as a kid. Her head was made in Armand Marseille’s factory in Thuringia, Germany. Her face, maybe 1 of 1,000 made that day, was produced using the same numbered mold as all of her sisters’. Then her head was strung together with a composition body before the doll got her finishing touches—a cotton slip, a velvet dress, a ruffled hat, a wig of human hair.
This particular doll was then bundled and exported. In my mind, I see her on a steamship headed off to Latin America. After a close call sailing around jagged Cape Horn, her crate sliding back and forth in the hull, she arrived in Santiago, Chile, where she was sold in a toy shop to an affluent family. Then, more than 100 years later, while I visited my extended family there, I spotted her in a flea market laid out on a blanket. I bought her with my allowance, drawn to something unnamable. Without realizing it, I’d fallen for the same flawed thinking the Victorians had, idolizing these dolls for all the wrong reasons.
In the 17th and early 18th centuries, children were seen as inherently sinful. It was a spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child time, when parents had a moral calling to keep their kids from succumbing to their darker, devilish impulses. The end goal? Produce an adult who would perform their station in life. Play was only useful if it built good habits.
This stance began to soften in the 1800s, as Romantic poets like William Wordsworth linked childhood with a state of purity and innocence. Pre-Raphaelite artists like John Everett Millais painted children not as stiff miniature adults but as young individuals with a vulnerable sweetness, all apple cheeks and corkscrew curls.
In this sea change, childhood morphed into a heavily romanticized, dreamy time of purity and innocence—a fragile moment that required protection. Yet it was clear that only upper- and middle-class youth would be sheltered, with working-class children forced to labor in mines, textile mills and other rapidly developing industries. Victorian toys, mostly created for wealthy children, embodied this schism. And lavish porcelain bisque dolls, often depicting high society with garments of velvet and lace, could be considered the grandest spectacle of that hypocrisy. Gilded Age dolls expressly “fostered conspicuous consumption, ritual and display,” writes Miriam Forman-Brunell in Made to Play House.
The dolls themselves were a miniature model of the cycle of fashion consumerism: new outfits, new hairdos, new accessories and new furnishings for these bisque beauties. It was all a dress rehearsal for the consumer cycle of womanhood.
These dolls had a fashionista forerunner: mini mannequins. The French royal court would ship these figurines fully decked out in the latest styles so aristocracy in other countries could copy them for their closets. Essentially, they were the 1700s version of flipping through Vogue.
In that respect, porcelain dolls were nothing new. The toy-as-status-symbol connection has long been established. In the Middle Ages, clay toys were playthings of the people—easily made and widely available—whereas ornate knight dolls with jousting accessories were rare, exquisite items reserved for the children of royalty. This division goes all the way back to antiquity. Consider Crepereia Tryphaena, a Roman woman whose sarcophagus was found to contain a beautifully crafted jointed doll. Death is the great equalizer: All skeletons look the same. But this doll acted as a stand-in for her owner’s body. When Tryphaena’s physical presence could no longer communicate her status, her doll’s sculpted face, molded hair and fine details were able to deliver the message.
The boom in doll production, meanwhile, was new—the product of a number of societal factors glomming together in the 1800s. The first was a boost in personal income for the middle class in America, which drove a spending spree on European goods. The aim of acquiring these items was to emulate the upper class, which was, in turn, emulating European elites. Real estate for nursery space also expanded for middle-class families, creating more room for dolls and a designated place for playtime.
An explosion of shopping venues followed these developments, from ritzy department stores to the encyclopedic mail-order catalogs to mushrooming chain stores. Ample toy-buying went into overdrive on Christmas, which solidified into a national American holiday and a Santa-themed, gift-giving bonanza in the 1870s. Finally, busy parents with fewer children came to see dolls as a good surrogate for companionship. All this was coupled with innovations in mass production and the dawn of the factory. The result: Porcelain dolls were poised for a takeover.
In the New Yorker in 2015, writer Thessaly La Force recounted Europe’s feverish obsession with porcelain. It arrived from China in the 14th century, and from the beginning, it was considered “white gold.” “Porcelain is for the refined, for the ruling class, with all of its power and privilege,” La Force explains. “This level of materialism, after all, is never about necessity.”
There was a racial component to the material, too; as La Force put it, “the most fraught symbolism of porcelain is its whiteness.” The milky absence of color has been compared in flattering ways to pale skin. A “porcelain complexion,” unmarked by sun or time, was a beauty standard of the Victorian era, with an armada of accessories—parasols, gloves, powders—shielding white women from obtaining a tan, something more associated with laboring outside than beachside lounging. It was precisely this analogy of porcelain as exemplary skin that made it the ideal surface for dollmakers.
In doll production, porcelain was used on the most visible part, the part put on display to the public: the head. Porcelain heads were made with an unglazed biscuit firing, bisque for short, giving the substance a more lifelike matte finish that could be painted. Bodies could be made from a variety of materials, including kid leather or “composition” (a papier-mâché-type mix of sawdust and glue). The result was far less lifelike, but this bumpy body would be hidden under clothing, so its presentation mattered far less.
The fragility of these kiln-baked faces was part of their appeal. To make something this delicate and place it into the hands of a child was to publicly declare you had the money to fix or replace it. These dolls didn’t just present an idealized image of the wealthy but were themselves symbols of being part of the upper class, their very nature communicating the relationship of rich to poor.
When Queen Victoria, ever the trendsetter, went into lifelong mourning over the loss of her husband in 1861, she sparked a period of romanticism over death and grieving. Funeral rites became ever more elaborate, with grand processions, ornate headstones and mausoleums, and death portraits. These spectacular funerals were another way of publicly demonstrating a person’s worth through material goods. Mourning was lengthy and divided into stages, each with its own corresponding clothing and etiquette. Dolls reflected these social trends with miniature mourning dresses and veils. Fathers were even known to build doll-sized coffins for their daughters, the way a dad might build a dollhouse for a kid today. This wasn’t seen as morbid or disturbing. To the Victorians, death and grief were very much facts of life, and playtime was the chance to do a practice run before children endured the real thing.
Bisque dolls reflected the fact that life was fragile and breakable, and so were human bodies. For the upper classes, their bodies were treasured, protected, memorialized. For the working classes, their bodies were fractured, forgotten, disposed. These were the bodies that were used in doll assembly itself, considered just part of the machinery of mass production. And before the advent of labor laws, children were part of that toil. For the workers, physical effort led to aches, pinpricked fingers, stiff backs, kiln-burned skin. But working-class bodies were also used as raw materials. Doll wigs were typically made from human hair bought from working-class girls. In effect, this process made body parts from the working classes into a plaything of the upper classes.
My flea-market porcelain doll had longevity, but her luck ran out when she was in my care. From her perch on my bureau, she took a tumble and cracked the back of her head. I screamed when I heard the thwack of porcelain meeting wood. My mother rushed in and reassured me not all was lost. Together we took her to a “doll hospital,” where specialists repaired her cracks and chips.
The fact that porcelain dolls continue to be produced even today, when so many more practical materials exist, speaks to their ascribed value. These are the dolls we considered prized and worth preserving. These are the dolls that have survived a century later to populate our museums and auction houses. These were the childhoods we chose to protect and memorialize. They continue to act as a signifier for a person’s class, whiteness and Europeanness.