Creepy / Staff Picks / Vintage

It’s Not Dead Yet: Half Dolls

I collect lots of dolls. Some people, including my husband, think they are creepy. I’ve never understood this. But half dolls, even to me, are a little strange. It’s as if a magician cut a woman in half and the top half is all that survived, going on without legs and possibly attached to some object. But they look happy, or at least serene.

A little background from the research I’ve done over the years, then I’ll show you some from my collection and some items I’d like to add someday. These little beauties were popular from about 1900-1920. I guess it was a fad like putting a little statue of a chef in one’s kitchen in the 1990s. They were decorative, but were usually part of something practical. Some were attached to small straw whisks to brush lint off of clothes, to the tops of powder boxes, pin cushions or tea cozies. From what I can tell, dolls were wold attached to something, or women bought them sans accouterments and added their own designs. Whatever a half doll was put on, it was supposed to look like a skirt. Sometimes they had separate legs that could peek out of the skirt to look like the doll was sitting. The dolls will usually have holes along their base for sewing them onto their skirts.

Most of the dolls were made in Germany and then Japan. Most are unmarked so one can’t tell. .There are two basic “types” of dolls: arms close and arms away. It’s more desirable now to find dolls with arms away that still have all their fingers. its easy to figure that if a tiny porcelain doll was used often enough, she’d break. Plus, since many of the dolls went on objects that little children would want to play with, I’m sure many little girls would sneak into their mother’s rooms and sit at the dressing table using mama’s powder and sweeping it off the table with little half dolls.

Now, some half dolls! Mine are not “dressed” so if you are sensitive, brace yourself.

Kristin's collection

Kristin’s collection

This is my largest half doll, attached to a wire cage. The cage is made to be covered and stuffed as a pin cushion. Ladies might use a doll like this for pins for sewing, or to hold brooches. Wouldn’t that be lovely? A satin skirt covered in lovely, sparkling brooches sitting on one’s dressing table? This doll has arms close, even though her elbows are away from her body. Isn’t she modest?

Kristin's collection

Kristin’s collection

This lovely girl is tiny, only two inches high. I found her in an antique seller’s stall in London at Portabello Road. You can tell her face wasn’t well painted, but remember, these were mass produced for a novelty market, so really, she’s not that bad. Maybe she’s been kissing someone and now is a little embarrassed she can’t fix her lipstick because she has arms close. Aren’t the ruffles on her sleeves pretty though? And her hat? I fell in love with her for her hat.

Kristin's collection

Kristin’s collection

Kristin's collection

Kristin’s collection

Here is an arms away doll. Her face is gorgeous and she has all her fingers! When I think that she’s been around for 100 years, I hope I look this good at her age!

This last one was a gift, and the creepiest of the half dolls I own. My sister hates this one…

Kristin's collection

Kristin’s collection

You may be wondering about her wig. Most half dolls are not accessorized like this. It’s human hair, glued to her head. I’m guessing she didn’t come this way when she was for sale, but who knows. If you need to look away from her wig, notice she has on a corset and even the laces are well done on the bust.

To end, I’ll point out that the half dolls I own aren’t “finished” with skirts. They are a little less expensive than those you’ll find that are attached to their antique bases, and they take up less space in a curio cabinet. However, here is what a doll on a powder box looks like:

Image: madisonsmanor.com

Image: madisonsmanor.com

I’d imagine the box was first covered in satin, gathered at the top center. The doll was then sewn on, and to hide the holes in the doll’s base, flocked flowers were glued on around her waist. Talcum powder was popular then, as there weren’t good deodorants and people didn’t bathe everyday. A woman could empty her ugly tin of powder into her powder box, add a fluffy puff to apply it, and wallah! A pretty addition to her dressing table. Plus, this arms away doll has a letter to read, and from the looks of it, it’s a love letter.

Lastly, in case you get a half doll and want to make it into something useful, there are patterns available online.

Image: thevintageknittinglady.co.uk

Image: thevintageknittinglady.co.uk

Websites like The Vintage Knitting Lady offer knitting patterns to make a half doll into a tea cozy. Also, if you want to make your doll into a box-topper, stores like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby have paper boxes ready to cover in some fabric. You just need some fabric scraps, pretty ribbons and flowers, and glue. If you use a water based glue like Elmer’s, and get some on the doll, it will wash off with water, not damaging the doll, lowering her value. If you want a pin cushion, make a circle base out of heavy cardboard, sew and glue on some fabric and stuff it with pillow stuffing. The best part is that if the fabric where you’ve attached the doll is messy looking, you can cover it up with some lace or ribbon.

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