Paper dolls cross over to collectors

STREETSBORO, Ohio – Louise Leek went to her first paper doll convention with $20 in her pocket – more than enough, considering they were just 29 cents when she was growing up.

What she saw when she got there, floored her.

Thousands of paper dolls crowded the large meeting room and the prices astounded her. Needless to say, her $20 didn’t last long.

Twenty-four years later, the curious novice is now a full-fledged collector and hosting her own convention July 10-13 near Cleveland.

A sale open to the public will be July 12, 2-4 p.m., at the Hilton Cleveland South in Independence, Ohio.

Collection. At her Streetsboro home, Leek’s collection fills albums, boxes, dressers and book shelves.

The collection ranges from dolls made in the 1800s to dolls made today.

Just because a doll is old, doesn’t mean it’s rare, Leek said.

Old paper has cloth content that made it last longer. Because of the paper’s durability and lower acid content, they survived handling. Many can still be found today and therefore, are not worth as much.

Eighteenth century. The earliest known paper dolls date from the 1700s. During this period, most children worked and had no time to play, so paper dolls were designed for wealthy adult women.

French dressmakers reportedly made the paper dolls as models for their dresses. This way, the rich ladies could get an idea of the fashion and pick the dresses they liked, which the dressmaker would make in adult sizes.

The dresses were simple overlays and didn’t have tabs to secure the dresses on the doll. They were made out of fabric or hand-tinted paper.

By the mid-1800s, children started having more time to play, and paper dolls were printed specifically for children.

Many of these dolls came with a story that had moral undertones. For example, paper dolls for little girls often had stories telling them what was appropriate dress and how to take care of babies.

By the end of the 1800s, the dolls became play things and have been ever since, Leek said.

Advertising. At the turn of the century, the dolls became an advertising gimmick. Inserts with paper dolls were placed in newspapers, so children would persuade their parents to buy a paper.

For example, in 1909 the Boston Sunday Globe had a series of 10 inserts featuring dolls of different nations with their native costumes.

Two years later, the Buffalo Sunday News had inserts featuring “Famous Players,” paper dolls of actresses.

Newspapers weren’t the only ones using gimmicks. Paper doll inserts were in bags of flour, in coffee cans and in bread packages. And if the women bought a certain number of thread spools, they could send for paper dolls for their children.

Movie stars. With the 1900s also came the popularity of paper doll books featuring movie stars.

These paper doll books are popular collectibles today because they cross over into other collecting categories. They appeal to people who collect paper dolls, movie memorabilia and celebrities.

For example, Leek has the paper doll books of Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Rock Hudson, Marilyn Monroe and Gone with the Wind.

Most of the celebrity books currently sell for about $100, although Leek estimates Marilyn Monroe’s may sell for $200.

These prices are for uncut dolls in good condition. If the dolls and clothing are cut from the book, its value is cut in half.

Hollywood style. Celebrity paper dolls were not the only ones with fashionable clothing. Barbie paper dolls and even dolls without famous names and faces featured stylish cut-out clothing.

Current trends. Collectors aren’t just going after dated paper dolls; the dolls made today are also on collectors’ lists.

For example, Leek collects contemporary paper doll books by Tom Tierney. Tierney has published more than 200 books, ranging from presidents to plays to movie stars.

Another paper doll enthusiast, Barbara Barnett, currently makes clothing out of wallpaper and draws the dolls she sells.

Leek’s newest addition is a paper doll book from Russia, dated 2003.

Unique. Although Leek typically collects only adult paper dolls, she makes exceptions for unique sets.

Her My Twin Dollies boxed set includes two dolls of children. What makes it unique is that it includes material, thread and patterns so children could make their own clothing for the paper dolls.

The set, made by Samuel Gabriel Sons Company, N.Y., is from the 1920s and cost Leek $50.

Another unique set in Leek’s collection is The Wardrobe Book from 1952 by World Publishing Company. The book folds out into a square with a string running from one side of the book to the other. The paper clothes came with hangers so children could hang the doll’s clothing in a “closet.”

It is in good condition since the clothing is uncut, however Leek said she would love to play with this set in particular. But if she cuts the clothing and dolls, it will lose its value.

Finding dolls. The biggest problem with paper dolls is that it is hard to find places to buy the collectibles.

Most of Leek’s collection has come from other collectors selling some of their paper dolls. She also occasionally finds them at antique shops and on eBay.

After hearing that Leek is a collector, she most often hears people say they threw away their childhood paper dolls.

Leek always sighs when she hears this and says to remember: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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