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Guest Blogger: Catherine Davenport Flowers, Curatorial Assistant
As a graduate assistant at Historic Columbia, I have grown attached to a trove of old treasures. I recently lifted one object out of its case for our holiday exhibit: a doll whose delicate frame has somehow managed to stand the test of time. Her dark hair and rosy cheeks remind us that the houses of the past were home not just to adults, but also to children. Their story is as much a part of our history as that of their parents.
Maybe you received a porcelain doll growing up, only to be exhorted by your mother to handle it gingerly. Today, these fragile things are meant more for admiring than for playing. But this German figurine made in the mid-1800s has a more durable construction. In the 19th century, only a doll’s head was porcelain; the body was made of cloth stuffed with sawdust, resin, or cotton. The composition made the doll lightweight and sturdy in small hands.
The doll in our collection is a precursor to Barbie and other fashion dolls that would evolve well into the 20th century. She came bundled with a wooden trunk containing another gown, tiny socks, shoes, and a straw hat. Dolls also presented an opportunity for girls to hone their needlework skills by sewing new garments for the toys from spare fabric. In changing outfits, young girls of means used the doll to embody their own understandings of womanhood and refinement.
If the 19th century doll in our collections has lasted over a century, perhaps yours is still around somewhere, too—waiting someday to be treasured.
You can see this porcelain doll and other Christmas gifts of times gone by at Historic Columbia’s Hampton-Preston Mansion and Robert Mills House, decorated for the holidays until December 31. For images of the houses decorated for the season, CLICK HERE.