Paper Doll History
Scissors and imagination are all you need for fun!
Paper dolls are making a comeback. In a world bombarded with hi-tech, electronic gadgets, isn’t it nice to know that paper dolls are still here? Low-tech and hands on, they are a simple pleasure, a pastime that has provided hours of fun for children—and grown-ups who have not lost their imaginations.
The origins of paper dolls are lost in the mists of time, but they were probably made by hand, small works of art. It wasn’t until commercial printing processes came into being that paper doll history really began.
Like so many frivolous fashions, paper dolls appeared first in Paris, long ago in the 18th century. That is when the French capital was establishing itself as a leader of fashion and culture. Those first paper dolls were very likely used as fashion plates to show women the newest styles from the Royal Court. Meanwhile, across the English Channel, little Brits were soon playing with paper dolls in toy theatres where the paper actors dressed in paper costumes to enact Shakespearean dramas.
Early American paper dolls are non-existent because paper was so valuable, such a luxury, that it could not be used as a plaything. So it was not until the 1800s that paper dolls crossed the Atlantic and began their long, colorful contribution to childhood.
At first, paper dolls had to be colored by hand but when color printing became commercially viable, that changed. It is surprising that early paper dolls did not have tabs. So how did the clothes stay on? Tiny dots of sealing wax were carefully applied to the dolls and then the clothes were stuck onto them.
By the turn of the century, paper dolls were popular playthings. The explosive American retail scene was dominated by the new department stores and those establishments often produced paper dolls to promote their ready-made clothing styles, especially bridal gowns. Because those were more modest times, the dolls were often dressed in daywear and alternative outfits were just layered on top. Eventually, paper dolls lost their shame and waited in their underwear for changes of paper clothing.
As the 20th century progressed, mass communication and media swiftly grew. Magazines and newspapers vied for readers and many found that by including paper dolls in their pages, they increased circulation. The increasing influence and interest in moving pictures added another layer of interest, and paper dolls of movie stars became very popular. Of course, personality paper dolls had been around for decades. One of the first popular paper dolls, issued in 1810, was named “Little Fanny.” There had even been a paper doll of Queen Victoria during her reign, but it was the queens of the silver screen that made paper doll collecting a rage among young movie goers. That began with Mary Pickford, the first big star and continued through the years, from Bette Davis to Doris Day, from Lucille Ball to Jane Fonda.
Paper, once such a valuable commodity, was cheap and plentiful when The Great Depression struck, and it was paper dolls that provided very affordable alternatives to more expensive toys. World War II was also a time of shortages and deprivation, so paper dolls continued to be very, very popular. In fact, the late ‘30s, the ‘40s and early ‘50s could be seen as “The Golden Age of Paper Dolls.” In addition to the movie celebrities, members of the armed forces, nurses and doctors, and a bevy of brides, there were many charming paper dolls depicting children of all ages from infants to teen-agers. Today paper dolls are enjoying a renaissance, a rebirth. Adult collectors avidly seek vintage books of paper dolls that recall their own childhood. Many collector’s items are very valuable and priced astronomically. That puts them out of reach of children for whom they were originally created. Luckily, there is a growing list of paper doll books that are being published, books that are scissor-ready for imaginative fun.