By Missy Sullivan
Throughout human history, children have played with and cared for dolls. Miniature facsimiles of human beings have been found around the globe from all periods of history, using all kinds of materials. They range from carved wooden paddle dolls discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs to scarily realistic soft vinyl dolls programmed with artificial intelligence—and everything in between.
The Industrial Revolution helped make playthings more widely available and affordable with mass production and cheap materials. And throughout the 20th century, ever-evolving mass media—newspaper and magazine cartoons, books, radio, film and TV—played an important symbiotic role in both generating and promoting doll characters. They also provided storytelling platforms for bringing the dolls to life.
Many popular 20th-century dolls started as the creations of visionary individual artists, designers and entrepreneurs. And unlike in most other businesses, which were male-dominated, the doll industry saw many women rise as creators and company owners. Here are 14 popular dolls that delighted children between 1900 and 2000:
The Kewpie doll fad exploded in the 1910s and ’20s, based on illustrations by American author, illustrator and businesswoman Rose O’Neill. After debuting in the Christmas 1909 edition of Ladies Home Journal magazine, Kewpie illustrations and stories began appearing in other women’s magazines, and by 1912 some included cutout paper dolls. As Kewpies gained global popularity, three-dimensional dolls of bisque porcelain and celluloid followed, along with a wide range of licensed Kewpie products from tea towels to mayonnaise. In her autobiography, O’Neill described the Kewpie character as “a benevolent elf who did good deeds in a funny way.” In her widely published stories and verses, O’Neill used Kewpies to support causes close to her heart, such as racial, economic and gender equality. In 1914, Kewpie dolls were even dropped out of a plane at a women’s suffrage rally in Nashville, Tennessee, floating to the ground with parachutes, each wearing little “Votes for Women” sashes.
Topsy Turvy featured two heads and torsos—one Black and one white—joined at the waist and convertible from one to the other by flipping up the skirt. While its origin isn’t precisely known, many believe the cloth folk doll originated in 19th-century plantation nurseries of the American South where Black enslaved girls were often paired as playmates and companions to the home’s white children, and were expected to eventually become caretakers to their owners’ children as well as their own. The purpose of the doll—whether to support or subvert racial hierarchies—remains unclear, but they underscored the complex dynamics of race in America. Mass produced in the 20th century, they reached their peak of popularity by mid-century, when sewing pattern kits for the dolls were sold by multiple companies, including Vogue, McCall’s and Butterick.
Raggedy Ann and Andy
With their red triangle noses and unruly yarn hair, the floppy cloth Raggedy Ann and her spunky brother Andy stand among the most enduring and beloved dolls in the history of American playthings. According to family lore, Raggedy Ann was born when creator Johnny Gruelle’s young daughter Marcella brought a faceless old rag doll down from their attic, and he drew on the now-iconic visage. Gruelle patented Raggedy Ann in 1915 and soon began writing and illustrating books featuring the adventures of his daughter and her doll, continuing in tribute after Marcella tragically died at age 13 from a contaminated vaccine. The doll’s popularity started to soar in 1918 after P.F. Volland published the first Raggedy Ann book. According to Publishers Weekly, in the first 100 years, more than 60 million Raggedy Ann books, dolls and other branded products have been sold globally.
Madame Alexander Dolls
Madame Alexander dolls were designed as high-quality, collectible playthings by Beatrice Alexander, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Growing up poor on New York’s Lower East side, she was inspired by her stepfather’s doll hospital business, which repaired broken porcelain dolls for wealthier families. When World War I disrupted the supply chain for European-made playthings, Alexander began a kitchen-table business sewing cloth dolls for the U.S. market. In 1923, with a $1,600 loan, she created the Alexander Doll Company, which she grew into one of the largest doll makers in the U.S., one still operating today.
The company became best known for licensing literary and film characters, from the March sisters of Little Women to Scarlett O’Hara of Gone With the Wind, as well as for its dolls of notable figures ranging from Sonja Henie to Jacqueline Kennedy to the Dionne quints. Alexander was even commissioned to design royal family dolls in advance of Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation; ever the stickler for quality and authenticity, she purchased cloth from the same mill that produced the coronation robes.
Shirley Temple Dolls
The premier child movie star of the 20th century, Shirley Temple sang and danced her way into Americans’ hearts during the height of the Great Depression. With her bright eyes, dimples, ringlets and irrepressible smile, Temple inspired a variety of dolls, books and other consumer goods, even decades after her peak movie years.
The first—and most collectible—Shirley Temple dolls were created by Ideal Toy and Novelty Company, which licensed the rights to her likeness from Fox Film Corporation and applied for a patent in 1934. The original composition dolls (made of sawdust and glue) came in multiple sizes with hazel eyes, 52 ringlet curls, an open mouth with six teeth and, of course, dimples in both cheeks. They also came with a wide array of outfits, many replicated from her most famous movie costumes, and accessories, like a doll hair curler. The megastar’s box-office popularity translated into enormous doll sales, with more than a million and a half sold in 1935 alone, according to The New York Times. Variation upon variation followed, and Ideal manufactured the only licensed Shirley Temple dolls until the early 1980s. Knockoffs also flourished.
Little Lulu, with her sausage curls, button eyes and bloomers, debuted in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935, the brainchild of pioneering female cartoonist Marjorie Henderson Buell. A feisty, independent prankster who could hold her own with the boys, Lulu Moppet, a.k.a. Little Lulu, became a beloved female character whose comic strip ran for more than 30 years and was translated into more than two dozen languages. Her image appeared in TV series and films and was licensed to promote numerous brands, including Kleenex and Pepsi-Cola. And it spawned numerous incarnations of Little Lulu dolls for decades to come.
Nancy Ann Storybook Dolls
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In the 1930s, Nancy Ann Abbott was an aspiring Hollywood actress who used her fine arts training between movie takes to dress porcelain dolls in outfits she sewed, often inspired by the film’s costumes. She gave the finished products to her on-set friends as gifts. After quitting Hollywood, she opened a bookstore in San Francisco, decorating it with some of her dolls, which drew enough attention to convince her to design them full time.
So in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, she launched Nancy Ann Dressed Dolls Company out of her apartment with little more than $100. By 1943, Nancy Ann Dolls Inc. produced more than 125 doll characters with names like Muffie, Debbie and Little Margie. By the end of the decade, it had become the country’s largest doll producer. Made first of bisque and later of hard plastic, the dolls were unusual in that they came with a single outfit each—confections of taffeta, lace, oversized bows and striking hats that were Abbott’s calling card. The company produced dolls until 1971.
The first mass-produced doll in the U.S. with adult features, Barbie officially debuted March 9, 1959 at the International Toy Fair in New York and went on to become not only a sales juggernaut—but a global cultural icon. Conceived by businesswoman and Mattel toy company co-founder Ruth Handler, who was inspired by a sexy German novelty doll, Barbie offered girls of the baby boom generation and beyond an alternative to traditional gender roles. But as often as Barbie reinvented herself and her occupation—she’s had more than 200 jobs through the decades, from rock star to astronaut—the doll drew criticism for its unrealistic body proportions and excessive materialism. Nonetheless, more than a billion Barbies have been sold since her debut.
Another Mattel Toy Company product, Chatty Cathy became the first successful talking doll. Introduced within a year after Barbie, Cathy initially “spoke” 11 phrases including “let’s play school!,” “please brush my hair” and “may I have a cookie?.” To start the chatter, kids would pull the “chatty ring” on her back, a pull-string mechanism that activated a lo-fi phonograph inside her tummy. At first blonde and blue-eyed, Cathy later came in brunette, auburn haired and dark-skinned versions. On the market for six years, Cathy was Mattel’s second most successful doll of the 1960s after Barbie, spawning spinoffs like Chatty Baby, Tiny Chatty Brother and Singin’ Chatty.
The first doll to emerge as part of the Black Power movement, Baby Nancy was a landmark plaything born in the aftermath of the devastating riots in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. In response to the unrest, civil rights activists and community leaders launched an economic empowerment effort called Operation Bootstrap, which included a homegrown toy company called Shindana (Swahili for “competitor”). Its most popular product, Baby Nancy, was the first doll designed, produced and marketed by Black toy makers—with backing and training from toy giant Mattel, which admired the company’s economic empowerment goal.
Whereas mass-produced Black dolls had previously tended to be darkened versions of a Caucasian-featured doll, Baby Nancy broke ground with more ethnically correct features, including a short Afro hairstyle. Released at the peak of the civil rights movement, she conveyed a welcome image of Black beauty that would help inspire a wider and more accurate representation in playthings going forward.
Cabbage Patch Kids
By the 1970s, when factory-made plastic dolls dominated the toy universe, handmade playthings made of traditional materials like cloth and wood had largely evaporated from the marketplace. That aesthetic would change—dramatically—when Kentucky folk art student Martha Nelson’s soft-sculpture dolls went from being a local craft fair product to a frenzied global toy fad.
The unique, hand-sewn, homely-cute dolls, which she offered with individual “adoption” papers, took off after a struggling but entrepreneurial artist name Xavier Roberts bought a few for resale, then began replicating them and growing the idea. Buying and renovating an abandoned medical clinic in Georgia, Roberts turned it into BabyLand Central, a fantasy theme park-like experience where his “little people” dolls were “delivered” from cabbage patches and made available for adoption with individual birth certificates. He and a partner later licensed the doll idea to toymaker Coleco, which poured millions of dollars into advertising and drove demand into the stratosphere, inspiring fist fights and trampling battles among covetous parents. Named Cabbage Patch Kids, they topped toy sales for three years in the mid-1980s, hitting a peak of $600 million dollars in 1985, according to The New York Times. Martha Nelson eventually received a modest settlement and acknowledgement for originating the idea.
Rainbow Brite may have been the collective brainchild of multiple massive corporations—including Hallmark, Mattel and Disney—but the final product still struck a happy nerve with children, becoming one of the most beloved dolls of the 1980s. Begun as a Hallmark bid to boost its licensing business (and match the success its rival American Greetings was having with Strawberry Shortcake), Rainbow Brite’s main character Wisp charmed audiences with her hopeful mission to bring color and light to the universe and defeat the King of Shadows. Wisp, her friend Twink and her trusty horse Starlite grew in popularity even more with a 1984 animated Rainbow Brite TV series and a 1985 full-length theatrically released movie.
In 1986, Wisconsin-based elementary school Pleasant Rowland launched her American Girl dolls collection as a way to blend education and entertainment, to teach history through storytelling and play. Each of the company’s earliest dolls represented a different time period in American history. And each was given a rich life story—told in a deeply researched six-part book series—that intersected with major, often difficult historical events. Early characters included pioneer girl Kirsten Larsen, Civil War-era Addy Walker (above), who escaped enslavement, and Depression-era Kitt Kittredge.
The dolls, which were 18 inches tall and came with a wide range of period clothing, furniture and accessories, could quickly run into the hundreds of dollars, drawing criticism that they were only accessible to families of means. Originally only available via mail order, the dolls were later marketed in immersive stores in a dozen U.S. cities, where children dragged their parents for American Girl-themed salon and dining experiences, along with features like a doll “hospital” and party services. Rowland sold her company to Mattel in 1998. The flagship historical line of dolls has over the years been augmented with more contemporary characters that come in a wide range of skin tones, facial features and back stories.
Polly Pocket dolls took the ’90s by storm with what were essentially tiny figures inside handheld dollhouses. In the early 1980s, a father named Chris Wiggs designed the prototype for Polly Pocket for his daughter by creating a miniature dollhouse inside an old makeup compact. Wiggs licensed the idea to Bluebird Toys in the U.K., which in 1989 released the tiny folding Polly figures (each less than an inch high) inside small plastic clamshell-shaped play sets. The company went on to create more than 350 different play sets, each with tiny mechanisms and moving parts. Mattel, which acquired U.S. distribution rights, eventually bought out Bluebird, and in 1998 redesigned Polly to be larger and more Barbie-like.