In prior columns, I have expressed how much I loved my childhood. Just the mention of my days growing up in my West Philadelphia “down the Bottom” neighborhood brings a smile to my face. While there was very little money in my neighborhood, we who lived there were blessed with an abundance of love.
Given the opportunity, I would gladly relive my past. To tell you that we had a great deal of fun would be an understatement. My memories focus on my friends with those unique names; names that probably were possibly found in your neighborhood too. Every neighborhood had a “Fats”; there was usually a “Curly” and a “Junior.” I doubt, however, if there was a “Head Moe” or a “Wiz.” These were names seemingly reserved for people who earned them under special circumstances.
In those days, there were no computers or other technological advances to keep us glued to desks in our homes. No, we were out in the streets, engaged in games that few youngsters play today; games too many of our young people know nothing about – baby in the air, hot bread and butter, blind man’s bluff, dumb schoo” or make a round, round circle on an old man’s back? While these and many more have disappeared from the “have fun playbook” of today’s youth, I cannot help but think of an activity that was characteristic of little girls in the past, one I do not hear much about today. I am not referring to hopscotch, jacks or double Dutch. I am wondering what happened to little girls playing with dolls, the way they used to back in the day?
I cannot tell you the last time I saw a little girl playing with her doll, although I understand from some parents that their grandchildren play with dolls today. The significant difference is that today’s little girls play with dolls occasionally, while it was a regular occurrence in the past. If you had sisters or girls in your neighborhood, think back to your visits with them and I am confident an image of a doll will be in the picture. There will also be images of all the related accessories –doll crib, carriage, stove, furniture, pots and pans, dishes and the dainty doll clothing. All of these things made playing with dolls fun. While toy trains, cowboy boots and cap guns captured the interests of little boys, dolls were the center of attraction for most little girls, and by all accounts, they derived hours of pleasure playing with them.
There was not a great deal of fuss over the complexion of dolls that Black children played with in the past. It was not unusual for Black girls to have only white dolls. There was no great demand for Black dolls when many of us were children. Black was not the acceptable thing, back then. This was consistent with the saying, “If you are white, you are all right; brown, you can stick around; but if you are Black, get back.” If you are from my era, you have some recollection of the experiment in 1939 when Dr. Kenneth Cark and his wife, Mamie, asked Black children to choose between a Black doll and a white doll. The children overwhelmingly picked the white dolls because they thought they were nicer, although they were the same except for skin color. The Black dolls were identified as “the bad ones” by the children.
While Black dolls may not have been popular during the ’50s, Black children had an association with Black dolls going back to the days of slavery. If you look deeply into the relationship between Black children and their dolls during slavery, you will find that their dolls were very crude. They were handmade and any material available was used. The dolls from this period were made of wood, nuts, cloth, bottles or almost anything people could find. These were often referred to as the "Mammy" dolls. Even though the slave-generation dolls were crude, their features did resemble those of Blacks. The mass-produced Black dolls that came much later were often created from the same mold as white ones and simply dipped in brown or black paint. Thus, too often the Black dolls that ended up in the playrooms of Black girls emerged from factories with the same Caucasian features as white dolls, back in the day.
The Black dolls many of our children played with were passed down from one generation to another or purchased from stores. They were made of papier-mâché, ceramic or porcelain, composition, cloth, rubber, wood and bisque. So, how many dolls did you have that were made of any of these materials? As children, did any of you have Black dolls that were politically correct? What do I mean by that? Well, think back to those dolls that you or your parents had during the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s. I doubt seriously that they had features that were characteristically Negroid; large nose, big lips, large ears and kinky or wooly-type hair. Most dolls, if you recall, were no different from white ones except for their skin color.
There were, however, a few companies that made dolls with Black features. The dolls made by Leo Moss, a Black man from Macon, Ga. had typically Black characteristics. His dolls were made in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Also, there was the National Negro Doll Co., established in the early 1900s by a Black man, R.H. Boyd. His politically correct dolls were properly dressed and presented in a positive manner; not seen as servants or domestics as were many Black dolls back then.
German doll-makers did an outstanding job in making dolls that truly reflected the images of Black children. The German companies Simon & Halbig and Arman Merseille produced bisque-headed Black baby and young girl dolls. They were produced in limited quantities and were extremely rare and costly. Thus, few children were playing with these dolls back in the day, as most Black families could not afford them. Today, these dolls are rare and extremely valuable. French doll-makers also produced a number of unique Black dolls, many of which were dressed as elegantly attired house servants. Others were simply Black-complexioned dolls with Caucasian features; simply white dolls with brown or black faces and bodies. These were not in the doll-playing category. They belonged in someone’s collection as soon as they came from the factory.
While you may not have had one of these turn-of-the-century German or French dolls as a child, you may have had had several of the common Mammy, rag, Aunt Jemima or Topsy Turvy dolls. The Topsy Turvy doll had a Black doll on one end and a white one on the other. The dress would cover one face Or you may have had one of the more creatively crafted dolls such as the one made by Gerber Products Co with flirty dark-brown eyes; a Rastus Cream of Wheat cloth doll; a Jesco Kewpie doll; a Topsy doll manufactured by Reliable Toy Co.; an Alexander “Leslie Polly-face doll; or one of the many Shindana dolls made in the early 1980s by this Black doll company. Perhaps you had an Effabbee Lucifer marionette or a marionette made through the Works Project Administration. I suspect that a few of you may have had a Jackie Robinson doll. Having one today with its original clothing and accessories would bring a handsome price from a doll or sports collector.
Having a Schoenhut Negro dude doll to play with was highly unlikely, as this was truly a collectible when it was first created. Some of you may have played with the Amosandra doll named after the Amos 'n. Andy show. In more recent years, the 1970s specifically, there may have been dolls in your home that your children or grandchildren played with such as Black Cabbage Patch; Muhammad Ali; Louis Armstrong; Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Florence Griffith Joyner (Flo-Jo) dolls. Of course, I cannot ignore the Black Barbie dolls; nor can I ignore paper dolls.
A great number of Black dolls were made in the United States and in foreign countries, so many I suspect that the variety would surprise you. Thus, if you have a serious interest in the subject and wish to experience the strength, culture and promise shared with their owners, go out and purchase one of the many Black doll books on the market today. You will see what you missed as a child, and at the same time have the opportunity to reminisce about Black dolls once held in the arms of Blacks, back in the day.