A History of Dolls

BarbieFor many of us a doll is often one of the first significantly memorable things that we hold dear to us. They hold some of our most important and cherishable memories from our earliest childhood years. They most commonly come in the shape of a human or sometimes an animal and in more modern times they have taken on a kind of animated appearance such as the popular Barbie and Bratz dolls.

In ancient times dolls had a spiritual significance and were not commonly used as a children’s toy but more often in religious rituals as props; some dolls were never given to children to play with as it is believed that they were too magical. Many documents have been found to date back to Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece. Wooden paddle dolls are one of the oldest discovered types of dolls, discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs beginning in the Predynastic period dating as far back as 2000BC. These types of dolls are made of flat wood and seemingly follow an image of the female figure. 

African dolls were used as methods of education for the Gods and ancestors of their time. Effigy, which is a popular way of performing magic in African, native American and some European cultures, is a representation of a specific person in the form of a sculpture, in this case a doll. Examples of effigy dolls were the European poppet and the nkisi or bocio of West and Central Africa. A more well-known ancient doll tradition is the voodoo doll in African-American hoodoo magic, which is the idea that a voodoo doll is made for a person who you would like to inflict physical harm upon. However, a kitchen witch which originated in Northern Europe, was used as a method for bringing good luck. Hoppi Kachina dolls have a similar purpose to African dolls because they too are methods of education and were believed to bring good luck. Their sole purpose was to be treasured and studied in order to learn the characteristics of each Kachina.  

Japanese traditional dolls have a very long history. Dating as far back as 8000BC in the time of the ancient Jōmon culture. They had multiple different roles, such as being used as toys for children, for protection and in various religious ceremonies. Some examples of traditional Japanese dolls are Hina dolls, Kintarō dolls, Musha or warrior dolls and Kimekomi dolls. Kintarō dolls are offered to Japanese children during the Tango no Sekku holiday, which is always held on the fifth day of the fifth month and is the final celebration of Golden Week. It is a special day set aside to respect children’s personalities and to celebrate their happiness. Japanese DollsHowever, Musha dolls are used to represent men and women seated on camp chairs, standing or riding horses. Their armour, helmets and weapons are made of lacquered paper. There are no specific sets of these dolls, however there are ones that represent Emperor Jimmu, Empress Jingü with her prime minister Takenouchi holding her new born imperial son and fairy tale figures such as Momotarō the Peach Boy or Kintarō the Golden Boy.  

Moving into the more modern era, Matryoshka dolls are Russian dolls designed in 1890. The name ‘matryoshka’, literally ‘’little matron’’ is a diminutive form of Russian female first name ‘Matryona’. They are still used nowadays and are more commonly known as the ‘stacking doll’. They are made from sets of similar looking dolls that are hollow on the inside and are decreasing in size so that they can be put inside one another. The largest Matryoshka doll in a set is usually a woman while the smallest is a baby. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s during Perestroika, freedom of expression allowed the leaders of the Soviet Union to become a common theme of matryoshka dolls, with the largest doll featuring then leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the smaller dolls featuring other former leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin.

Russian DollsMatryoshka dolls are metaphorically known as a design paradigm. This means that it symbolises the recognisable relationship of having ‘an object within a similar object’ that very commonly appears within the nature of other crafted objects. Using the example of an onion, when the outer layer is peeled off an onion, a similar onion still exists within. This structure is employed by designers in the layering of clothes or the design of tables.

Finally, in today’s modern-day age we have dolls like the Barbie dolls. Ruth and Elliott Handler founded Mattel Creations in 1945 and fourteen years later the Barbie doll that we know today was first broadcasted to the world. The inspiration for Barbie initially came as Ruth was watching her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls. Ruth immediately recognised that experimenting with the future through pretend play was a vital part of growing up. At the time there was also a huge gap in the market and she was determined to fill that void with a 3D fashion doll. Many years and different designs later Mattell introduced the first ever Barbie doll, the Teen Age Fashion Model. Many competitors were sceptical of the idea at first, as the prototype was so unlike the baby and toddler dolls that were immensely popular at the time. Mattell’s intention for the Barbie doll was for her to become a symbol of the independent woman and for young girls to use the doll to reflect themselves and inspire, however critics believe that the Barbie doll teaches young girls that women are restricted in their lives, for example a woman being kept in a traditional ‘woman’s place’ like staying at home cooking and cleaning while the husband is out working.