Joyce Kilmer once poetically intoned the universal truth that “Only God can make a tree.” But what mankind has done with that tree since it was made has been truly amazing. And not all of it has been put into furniture. Some wood has even been used to create images of ourselves.
Wood has been used to create millions of artifacts down through the ages, and it is so durable many of those objects have endured for centuries. Wooden dolls have been no exceptions. Many families have passed a treasured wooden doll on through several generations.
Some are perhaps not as perfect as they were when they were first presented to a lucky child to play with, but these most elderly of dolls have proven to be more lasting than more recent bisque and rag dolls.
Woodcarver’s skill. Dolls of wood have been made in quite diverse fashions and varieties, often depending on the skill of the carver or woodworker who fashioned them. If it involved more than just knife work, the kind of equipment available to create dolls was also a deciding factor.
Many of the old wooden dolls had names referring either to the period of time, similar to the period titles given to styles of furniture, or to some characteristic of the doll itself, such as the Penny Wooden made in Germany in the 18th century.
This was a very low cost doll, produced in quantity and available to many youngsters. They were all hand made, produced prior to any machine made forms.
The dolls were carved from maple, poplar, or pine, had jointed arms and legs, a contoured shapes, and often had composition hair. They were about 4 inches in height, but as time went on the same form was lengthened to about a foot. Price went up accordingly.
Export market. Early in the 19th century, a doll similar to the Penny Wooden was produced in the Netherlands, named Flanders Babies. They were mostly exported to other countries.
But hand carved wooden dolls had appeared in the inexpensive market even earlier than Penny Wooden. Dolls named “blockhead” or “stump” dolls were being produced In late 17th to early 18th centuries.
The heads were either flat-topped or rounded, and arms were cloth or wood. That was all there was. It was a doll that relied heavily on “make-believe,” with no body form below the neck. A very long gown was used to hide the missing parts.
The first really exquisite wooden dolls were produced in the late 19th century by Schoenhut, renown for toy manufacturing. The company issued an expertly carved wooden doll with mohair wigs, precisely carved facial features and hands. These were sometimes partly wood and sometimes all wood.
Painted ladies. Around 1880 Mason and Taylor. whom had previously worked for Schoenhut, patented their own wooden dolls. To present a more life-like appearance, composition or plaster was overlaid on expertly carved facial features. The face was then carefully hand painted. The first issues had pewter feet, later releases possessed pewter cast faces. These undoubtedly were also the first movable jointed doll with turning heads, and jointed limbs.
The naming of dolls as they began to be manufactured rather than handcrafted has made the identity of antique dolls less easily identifiable.
The early wooden dolls, as mentioned earlier, were often named for a period or for a well-known person. In England dolls carried royal names – William and Mary, George I, and Queen Anne.
The original Queen Anne types were made in the 18th century, following Queen Anne’s reign from 1702 to 1714. But the name was also employed much later by doll manufacturers. This factor creates a wide value range for Queen Anne dolls, starting at about $1,000 and climbing for the originals with original clothing to about $20,000.
Dolls have been and always will be sought after by collectors and the seekers of folk art. The wooden doll is more likely to of value to the folk art collector, who admires it more for what it represents rather than what it actually is. And like all folk art artifacts, the wooden doll fits neatly into the category of decorative art.