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From “Sally Hemings” signed by artist Donald Hendricks, Legacy Designs, publisher, 2000.

A Brief Historical Sketch on Paper Dolls

Before Barbie, paper dolls were one of the most popular dolls for girls. The history of paper dolls is much longer than we assume.“The first paper dolls were reported in 1280 by explorer Marco Polo. He told of seeing paper figures of human beings as part of Chinese religious rights. Paper dolls as we know them, however, were not seen till the 18th century, when often life-size, jointed paper dolls were created and used as jumping jack toys or marionettes. “(Antiques Collect Mag, 2003:63) As the name itself suggests, “paper dolls are printed on sheets of flat papers, were being made in the early 19th century in England, Germany and France. Some were hand painted in color. Others were printed in black and white, to be colored by the buyer. “(Ibid, 63)

When were paper dolls made for the first time in America? “By 1854, the first paper doll for children was made in America. The publishing company of Crosby, Nichols & Company of Boston included a paper doll named Fanny Gray. The doll came in a box and with a wooden base along with several costumes and a booklet of verses. By 1859 Godey’s Lady’s Book began publishing a complete series of paper dolls.”(Ibid, 63)Paper dolls have “frayed edges, creased mid-sections, and bent clothing tabs. From stubborn Scotch tape to indelible crayon markings, the pitiful paper stories are never-ending. Exceptions to the well-loved-well-worn rule are three series of paper dolls released by Hallmark in the late 1940s: ‘Dolls From The Land of Make Believe,’ ‘Dolls of the Nations,’ and the ‘Little Women Dolls.’ Many can still be found in the colorful and pristine condition that delighted young collectors when the dolls made their debut.” (Johnson, 2010: 20)

After Hallmark’s success, competitors joined the paper doll market. But the market did not last. “After their late-1940s flurry, the Hallmark dolls disappeared until 1954. On re-release, the album covers had changed. Hallmark Dolls originally sold for just 25 cents each (50 cents with the album). Today, individual dolls in mint condition can fetch from $40-45, with each “Little Women” doll averaging $50-75. Just right for any young or young-at-heart doll collector you may know-especially if you “care enough to send the very best.”(Ibid: 25)

From “Boots, cut-out comic strip character”, publication unknown, December 11, 1938. From “Little Black Sambo”, publication unknown, Oklahoman, June, 1937.
As we can see in Hallmark’s beloved series, most paper dolls have a white complexion and are good-looking girls and boys. When was the first black paper dolls produced? “Paper dolls are hardly newcomers. In 1811, an English toy company, S. & J. fuller, printed what is thought to be the first mass-produced black or mulatto paper doll. With curly locks and a swarthy complexion, ‘Protean Man’ was unlike typical African-American male paper dolls seen in the 19th and 20th centuries.” (Antiques & Collecting Magazine, 2007:20)

Moreover, “Grayson notes that black paper dolls, especially those that appeared in the mid-1800s into the mid-1900s, commonly depicted people of African ancestry in subservient and stereotypical roles. “(Ibid, 21)“About 120 examples of Arabella Grayson’s Collection, which totals 300 sets and individual pieces, are now on view at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington D.C. The display includes, ‘Nyla,’ Grayson’s first paper doll, and ‘Mammy and Her Thanksgiving Dinner,’ 1912.” (Ibid, 23) After the introduction of Barbie, paper dolls gradually disappeared.

“Barbie was introduced in 1956. Originally, she had five movable body parts, large pointed breasts, a skinny waist, wore high heels and a black-and-white striped bathing suit.”(Wager-Ott, 2002:248) Barbie is, of course, a three dimensional figure unlike the paper dolls. “Hander, who creates the Barbie, noticed that her own daughter loved to dress and undress paper dolls; therefore, Barbie was finally designed with this notion in mind – to become a manikin for displaying a plethora of fashionable clothing and accessories. “(Wagner-Ott, 2002:248)

Questions of Gender Identity

In general, the connection between gender identity and playing with dolls is explored by many researchers.How girls “dress, the daily rituals through which we attend the body – is a medium of culture.” (Bordo, 1993:165)Duncum (1997) asserts below: “It is from popular culture that most people weave their identities and establish their relationships with others and the environment. Mass media images saturate our lives, structuring much of what we know beyond personal experience. “(Duncum, 1997:70)

As Duncum notes above, most children build up their identity to differentiate themselves from others in the environment. In this sense, Wagner-Ott (2002) asserts “Because of the crucial issues associated with many girl’s perceptions of their own bodies, and about themselves in relation to the formation of gender identities.”(2002:247) The discussion of gender identity has been a controversial issue – which focuses on taking advantage or disadvantage of playing with dolls. Scholars who have commented on children playing with dolls in relation to gender identity have expressed favorable and unfavorable opinions/analyses of this activity.

On the one hand, one researcher in the 1950s argued that female children accustom themselves to the mother’s role by playing dolls. Moreover, De Beauvoir (1957) argued that “since the middle of the 1800s, manufacturing industries had been manipulating parents and girls via dolls in order to help girls adjust and learn about their future roles as wives and mothers.”(Ibid: 251) In this sense, children easily adapt to their mother’s characteristics by role playing. In other words, girls mirror the mother throughout this playing.

On the other hand, some scholars posit that gender identity is negatively affected when children pretend their dolls are princesses. Since playing with dolls is an indoor activity, it may be related to girls becoming passive, motionless. Moreover, girls become emotionally attached to dolls. These associations—indoors as a female space, passive and without agency, emotionally-attached—are characteristics of female stereotypes. As a result, the social construction of the feminine is a significant issue related to playing with dolls.

Mapping Mediated Characteristics from Shadow Playing to Children’s Princess Playing

Being passive or active as a mediator

“Toys invite players to read and perform particular identities through play. The identity text ‘cool girl’ is communicated through the doll’s anime features as well as its hairstyle, makeup, and clothing. The doll’s snippets of talk, ‘I’m bored – let’s go shopping,’ voice gendered consumer identity messages for children in the target demographic 6 – to 12- year – old girls.” (Wohlwend, 2009: 59)

From “Album cover and interior for 1947’s 'Dolls from the land of Make Believe,' with photo of Disney sat Luana Patatern.

In general, being a princess is a kind of archetype for the beauty of a girl. Most girls have dreamed the fantasy of being a princess as a result of reading or seeing Disney stories. According to Butler (1993), “Critical discourse analysis of play activity showed that children regulated each other’s gender performances through talk and actions that demonstrated their ability to adhere to the heterosexual matrix.” (Wohlwend, 2009:60)

The fascinating issue here is that children’s princess playing takes a significant role in mediating their characteristics. In this sense, playing with dolls may be the first socializing moment as they often take place children are old enough to go to school. When playing with dolls, the children, not adults or teachers, decide who plays with whom and what roles each child (or doll) will take in the group. In other words, there are no restrictions set by external forces when children decide their position or roles since they regulate this at the beginning of play. Hence, they experience how they set up the stories and create the first tiny mediated world including their own voices and different visualized icons: paper dolls.

“During princess play, girls focused on achieving beauty ideals and rejected play scenarios that stretched stereotypical male/female roles.” (Wohlwend, 2009:60)

Blaise (2005b) asserts below that princess playing is a pivotal role for gender performances: “The value that a small group of girls placed on being beautiful and pretty became evident in the dramatic play area while they were pretending to be princesses… Often, early childhood teachers and parents view children’s pretend play as ‘simply play,’ failing to recognize how gender is created and re-created in these story lines. As children enact the story lines of princes and princesses, the importance of being pretty and the role it plays in creating femininities and masculinities provide another opportunity for locating the heterosexual matrix in the classroom.” (77)

In general, “Toys must communicate meanings that appeal to children to be taken up and must be malleable enough to allow players to invent new meanings; that is, toys invite a particular meaning and simultaneously enable its revision.”(Brougere, 2006) In this sense, children give names to and create unique meanings about their paper dolls.

From, "Magazine ad for the 1954 re-release of the “Dolls From the Land of Make Believe.”p. 20

Questions of Body as Medium

Children’s Material Cultures

When girls played with paper dolls, they could not avoid facing the back part of the doll – which is just blank paper. The front part was facing the other child a girl is playing with, and the back part was facing the girl herself. The limitation of the material characteristics allowed a girl to embed their voice and character in the paper doll. In this sense, there was a kind of appointment among players, they pretended the actual person was not there. This is a basic assumption among players; the paper doll represented themselves and then the player was identical to the paper doll. This was the first experience a girl might have with how communication is mediated with the medium itself. The communication process in playing with dolls is definitely similar to shadow play. In shadow play, “the performance consisted of a screen, and a light source and an artist behind the screen. The artist created shadow portraits, which were cast onto the screen. Like a theater play, this show also had a scenario and was performed accordingly.” (Ozcan, 2002:19) We can consider this to be completely homogeneous characteristics to with playing paper dolls. In playing with dolls, girls have the experience of representing themselves as dolls, experiencing a kind of embedded mediated communication. In addition, the paper doll could not have movable body parts. Its shape was fixed and limited to their body. Even if the most fascinating thing about paper dolls was changing their outfits, it was still very limited. If the figure had a special pose, all outfits may not have fit the doll. The cultural habitus was based on how many paper dolls and outfits that a girl had. From the point of community formation, the doll had an invisible power among girls. Today, an avatar in cyber space represents the simulation mentioned above. An avatar in the internet world can have as many outfits as possible, but may need a cyber token as part of the trading process. This whole process in the avatar simulacra is definitely represented by those whom have an experience either playing with dolls or with the concept of shadow play.

The Medium is NOT the Message

McLuhan’s formula, the medium is the message, is not appropriate in the context of playing with paper dolls. Most media can be categorized as a continuum between Iris and Hermes. For Iris, the medium is the message. However, Hermes was more of a letter carrier, keeping the outer envelope differentiated from the inner content of the message. According to Kittler, “In order for signs to be comprehensible rather than simply readable, they must first be endowed with the figural quality of images drawn from nature, then these images must be animated by the hallucinated Mother’s voice. As in the phonetic method, optical signs are surrounded with the echo of maternal orality. The result is that instead of signifier one has signified that can be ‘seen,’ as if the text were a film. (Kittler, 590)

In understanding media, McLuhan asserts “All media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms.”(64) According Kittler’s interpretation below: “But if media transpositions are again simply the movement of a metaphorization, then 1800 and 1900 can no longer be distinguished from one another in the way Kittler would like: namely, in the belief in a transcendental signified in the former case and the knowledge of manipulatable signifiers in the latter.” (Sebastian and Geerke, 1990; 593)

Moreover, Kittler “thinks of technology merely as technical apparatuses in their empirical facticity and not, like Foucault, as a function of knowledge. And Kittler does not recognize that if he replaces language by technologies – conceived of as such empirical apparatuses – then everything that Foucault says about language hold true precisely for technology. In other words, the specificity that Kittler reserves for psychoanalysis and his own enterprise can be nothing more than illusion that is transverse by an exterior element called technologies.” (Ibid, 594)

From, a future in Fashion: Designing wearable art, Arts Act 146(4), 2009 p.33By Charl Anne Brew,

“The Obvious” – Ethnically biased dolls?

Can you remember the first dolls in your childhood? If so, you remember the white dolls with the curly blond hair. This is no exception in the case of paper dolls -- which were the formal dolls -- before the fantasy Barbie icon.

DuCille (1994), “warns of the potential determent of white dolls and Barbie only promoting white, middle class values and image.” (48) As an African American scholar, she explained that, as a child, she did not notice that her dolls did have her same skin color. She asserts “a personal adult analysis of how the dominant vision of whiteness in dolls perpetuates a common identity to which many girls aspire.” (Ibid)

In this sense, little girls do not have an opportunity to differentiate the self from the other. The hegemony around paper dolls are built up by those who have high cultural capital and enough financial support or corporate backing to make them. In this sense, a historical bias is always going on here. Who do you think can make paper dolls and go much further than Barbie? The answer is, of course, those who have an enough financial support and high cultural capital. Even if enormous funds were not needed to make paper dolls, these toys were still limited in their production. As we well know, the social circumstances around the heyday of paper dolls are totally different from today. Hence, there was no alternative to white values and standards. Wagner-Ott (2002) discusses some fascinating early research about dolls and skin color: “Drs. Kenneth and Mariam Clarck interviewed children in the 1930s and the 1940s on doll color preferences. The conclusion was that 67% of African American children preferred white dolls.” (255)

As a result of this research, black dolls were produced. “In 1968, Christie, a Black friend for Barbie, came on the market for the first time.” (ibid: 256) Mrs. Rubie’s assertions that “it is children’s relationship with things rather than people that is most critically important for their sense of itself is utterly startling, and yet utterly in line with a consumerist ethic. This understanding fits in well with the emergence of an industry ready to supply the things kinds need in order to have a ‘positive self image’ but neatly sidesteps the question of fundamental social, political, and historical issues that also impinge on children’s experiences and hence their perceptions of themselves as people in the world.”


When Do Media Go to Die?

If paper dolls did not take such a significant role beyond just “playing”, it might be extinct. First of all, using paper dolls are sufficient for educating girls and boys in middle, and high school students. In the Art Institute of Washington, paper dolls are used to educate middle or high school students to encourage them to create inspiring artwork. Through the project, Brew (2009:32), an adjunct professor at the Art Institute, explains the learning objectives below:

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  • "develop basic skills in determining and drawing the proportions of the human figure and face"
  • "apply visual thinking, seeing and recording"
  • "observe works of artists and discuss possible meanings and interpretations"
  • "gain knowledge of possible careers in art"
  • "develop basic skills in applying the proportions of the fashion figure"
  • "determine the differences in proportion between the male and female figures"

When paper dolls came out in public for the first time, ownership was restricted to highly capitalized people. Today’s technology allows anyone to make a paper doll with a digital photograph. These may be used for play or celebration or for creating memories. In other words, access is no longer limited. Furthermore, paper dolls can be easily adapted to represent famous figures. As such, this is one more reason why paper dolls will not disappear. In 2008, Philadelphia Weekly released the news about “Political Paper Dolls” below:

“Hold the president candidates in the palm of your hand thanks to Dover Books. Paper cutouts of Obama and McCain come complete with wardrobe changes – including a cowboy hat for Obama and a bulletproof vest for McCain that looks suspicious like and adult bib. Fingers crossed for Palin doll with pageant sash and AK-47 accessories.” (Philadelphia Weekly, Oct 8-Oct14, 2008:22) (See,[1]

In general, ecology is always monitored by itself unlike media systems. Different kinds of media has appeared and disappeared over the years, yet it is hard to evaluate media itself as a characteristic. As Appadurai’s five financial scapes and flows are well-explained terms for understanding how media history and archetypes are confirmed and compromised and evaluated by other media that comes before and after. In this sense, exploring dead media is not just about discovering dead media but also for understanding why a medium that gradually dies does not satisfy popular needs and what the complex mechanism is for understanding the related story.

Works Cited

  • Brew, Charles Anne, A Future in Fashion: Designing Wearable Art, Arts Act, 146(4), 2009.
  • Chamberlain, Jailer-Mildred. 200 years of Black Paper Dolls, Antiques & Collecting Magazine, 111(12), 2007, pp.20-24.
  • Gilbert, Anne. Old Paper Dolls: Popular Adult Collectibles, Antiques Collect Mag, 108(4), 2003, pp.63.
  • Goodman, Gail S. and Aman, Christine, Children’s Use of Anatomically Detailed Dolls to Recount an Event, Child Development, 61(6), 1990,pp.1859-1871.
  • Hello, Dollies!: Collectible Paper Dolls from Hallmark, Antiques Collect Mag, 115(1), 2010, pp.20-25.
  • Kotsosavas, Anastasia. Political Paper Dolls, Philadelphia Weekly, Oct 8-Oct 14, 2008, pp. 22.
  • Ozcan, Oguzhan. Cultures, the Tranditional Shadow Play,and Interactive Media Design, Design Issues, 18(3), 2002, pp. 18-26.
  • Sebastian, Thomas and Geerke, Judith. Review: Technology Romanticized: Fredrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks 1800/1900, MLN, 105(3), 1990,pp,.583-595.
  • Wagner-Ott, Anna. Analysis of Gender Identity Through Doll and Action Figure Politics in Art Education, Studies in Art Education, 43(3), 2002, pp.246-263.
  • Wohlwend, Karen E. Damsels in Discourse: Girls Consuming and Producing Identity Texts Through Disney Princess Play, Reading Research Quarterly, 44(1), 2009, pp.57-83.