Creepy, cool, or curious, dolls have been around for thousands of years. The Whanganui Regional Museum has over 300 dolls in the collection and here are a few samples.
One doll represents a 19th century moral lesson for children. The handmade fabric Struwwelpeter is dressed in a green tunic with a pointed hat and resembles a mischievous imp. “Shaggy Peter” originated in 1845 as the main character in a book by Dr Heinrich Hoffman, a German psychiatrist. Struwwelpeter’s main aim in life is to scare small children into good behaviour through a series of violent moral tales, vividly illustrated. The original book illustrations show Struwwelpeter as a much more solid and rounded figure than the elf-like creature here, but the family who donated him to the Museum certainly remember him by his Shaggy Peter name.
Another doll was given to the donor in 1908 when she was eight years old, living in Whanganui. The doll is dressed in a pale blue voile frock and leather shoes with white socks. She was made by Simon and Halbig of Grafenhain, Thuringia, in Germany, who made dolls from the 1870s until the 1920s and specialised in doll heads. These character heads can be found on top of the bodies of many other large German, French and American-made dolls.
A doll made in Germany features the original clothing and a heart-warming back story. She was made in 1909 and has large brunette ringlets with a lace ribbon around the band of her head, a painted porcelain face with rolling eyes, and a body with jointed hips, knees, elbows and shoulders. The doll was won in a raffle in 1912 by a Mr Livingstone, a recent immigrant from Scotland. He bought the ticket from a Kimbolton School fundraiser while waiting on his family to join him. When his wife and daughter arrived, three year old Mary became the new owner of the doll. The doll came complete with clothes hand-made by senior students of the school, including undergarments, petticoats and a dress of broderie anglaise.
Celluloid was a very popular material for dolls. In production from 1869 the pre-plastic material was celebrated, as it did not peel or flake and was cheaper to manufacture than the more traditional china. It could, however, fade in sunlight or crack if the celluloid was too thick. Never-the-less, it was still hardy. One celluloid doll in the collection takes the form of a large baby and is dressed in layers of wool and cotton clothing. It was made during the 1920s or 1930s, towards the end of the popularity of celluloid.
A more contemporary doll looks a little different to the character we may be more familiar with today, but is a figure of Christopher Robin holding a teddy bear depicting Winnie the Pooh. The doll was made in the 1960s and has moveable joints. He is a “sleeping doll”, meaning the eyes close when he is laid down. He wears a brown velvet hat, light cream shirt, brown velvet pants, socks and brown plastic shoes. Christopher Robin was based upon the son of A A Milne who wrote the children’s classics, Winnie the Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).
Sandi Black is the Archivist at the Whanganui Regional Museum. She has a background in anthropology and history.