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December 1, 2011

Baby Dolls

by admin

Contributor: Elizabeth Webster 

Also by this contributor:“Abercrombie & Fitch” 

I am one of many girls throughout the decades and across cultures who has been influenced by countless hours of interacting with baby dolls. Today’s baby dolls resemble real babies in multiple aspects – their features, body structure, and even noises are designed to both entertain and encourage nurturing skills in young girls. But baby dolls have not always served this purpose. The history of baby dolls dates all the way back to the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome where they were used for magic and religious rituals instead of play. In these days dolls were made from clay, wood, bone, and ivory – materials not suited for cradling or cuddling as they are today.[1]

During the early 1800’s until the Civil War, dolls were used as a means to teach girls their duties as a housewife and mother. Girls raised in antebellum households learned to sew by making their own rag dolls which fostered skills useful to character development, self-government, and domestic economy.[2] In the decades following the Civil War dolls began to serve as a more modern and symbolic function than a utilitarian one. After the war, dollplay emphasized high fashion instead of the sewing skills. During this time upper-class families collected wax and china dolls that were “modeled to perfection after the most approved forms of Victorian feminine beauty.”[3] Women and children of this age collected dolls and viewed them as an object of vanity. Like most toys made in today’s technologically advanced consumer culture, baby dolls have become more realistic than ever. Dolls can make burping, “cooing,” and crying noises, spit up, and even “tee tee” in their diaper after being fed water.


As notions of childhood changed, dolls became companions and a form of creative play instead of collectables. Doll making became the pursuit of inventors and machinists, not just designers. Engineers like Robert J. Clay applied machine technology to doll designs and patented “joints” in baby dolls in attempt to make them more realistic.[4] Unfortunately, mechanical dolls disturbed more than amused consumers. American women objected to heavy, expensive, and robot-like dolls because they impeded their daughters from imaginative play. Women like Martha Chase, encouraged by the culture of a domestic economy, sought to reform dolls and make them rooted in beliefs in women’s natural capacity to nurture.[5] As a result, dolls were made with a sensitivity towards their potential as teaching tools and also as a form of creative play. In contrast to the fashion wax dolls or mechanical dolls, baby dolls began to have natural-looking facial features and cupped hands instead of stiff fingers. Playing with more realistic babies gave girls maternal sensations and emotions. “According to Konrad Lorenz, both the proportions and the specific features of infants stimulate innate protective, affectionate, and nurturing behavior.”[6]


As a child, my favorite baby doll had real hair, a soft abdomen (making her easy to cuddle), and most importantly, she came with all of the “mommy essentials”: a diaper bag, stroller, pacifiers, bottles and so on. I considered both her realistic features and these accessories crucial to playing “house” because without them I could not practice being a real mom. In fact, my own mom welcomed baby dolls and all of their belongings more than other dolls like Barbie and Bratz. According to journalist Margaret Talbot, “What Bratz dolls are both contributing to and feeding on is a culture in which girls play at being “sassy,”–the toy industry’s favored euphemism for sexy–and discard traditional toys at a younger age.”[7] Many American mothers would rather their daughter practice her innate nurturing skills than interact with fashion dolls said to encourage sexuality.


But what about girls who preferred not to play “house” with baby dolls as a child? Does this make them less likely to be a good mother or even a mother at all? For journalist Stephanie Cleveland, motherhood felt forced. In her article titled “Coercive Motherhood” she claims, “I can remember wondering why, as a little girl, I was supposed to feel elated about the prospect of changing my baby doll’s diapers. As a grown woman, I have become more aware of the fact, in childhood, that message was constantly drilled into me to be a ‘real woman,’ I would have to become a mother sooner or later.”[8] In this piece, she argues how exalting motherhood and talking about it in terms of an individual choice affects women. According to her argument, not all women should feel obligated to become mothers. She implies that baby dolls are just one more way of making women who do not desire motherhood, feel less of a “real woman” than those who do. Whether or not this is the case, there must be some reason why baby dolls have continued to influence and entertain girls for centuries while fashion dolls and other gendered toys constantly change and go in and out of style. Even if it does force motherhood, encouraging a child to play with baby dolls seems to be healthier and more beneficial than promoting other “new age” fashion dolls.

[1] Fraser, Antonia (1973). Dolls. Octopus books. p 7

[2] Formanek-Brunell, Miriam. Made to Play House. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. Print. pp. 33

[3] Formanek-Brunell, Miriam. Made to Play House. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. Print. pp. 33

[4] “Creeping Baby Doll [Patent],”Children and Youth in History, Item #337,  October 19, 2011.

[5] Formanek-Brunell, Miriam. Made to Play House. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. Print. pg 63

[6] Formanek-Brunell, Miriam. Made to Play House. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. Print. pg 72

[7] Talbot, Margaret. “LITTLE HOTTIES.” New Yorker 82.40 (2006): 74-83. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 17 Oct. 2011

[8] Cleveland, Stephanie. “Off our Backs”.  JSTOR. Vol. 36, No. 2 (2006): 75-76. website









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