Monday, August 22, 2016

Paper Dolls in Paper Dresses

by Erin Doane, curator

Paper dolls have been around for hundreds of years but they were first manufactured for sale in the early 1810s. By the end of the 19th century, there were multiple companies around the country and world producing a wide variety of highly-detailed paper dolls. Many companies used color lithography to create dolls and clothing in vivid colors. These two-dimensional playthings were popular with children and adults alike because of their variety and details and because they were less expensive than cloth or porcelain dolls.

Unmarked paper doll and dress, early 20th century
Selchow and Righter was a game manufacturing company founded in the late 19th century that also produced paper dolls. In 1895, they introduced several new lines of dolls including “Tiny Ladies.” These 9-inch tall paper dolls came with three costumes and three hats. They were lithographed in the brightest colors and came already cut out and ready for use.

Lady Alice produced by Selchow and Righter
Lady Alice's outfits
The Dennison Manufacturing Company brought three-dimensionality to paper dolls in the 1880s when they added crepe paper clothing. The museum has a booklet entitled Art & Decoration in Crepe & Tissue Paper published by the Dennison Manufacturing Company in 1896 that showcases their line of crepe and tissue. The booklet contains instructions for using their paper to create all sorts of accessories for the home including lamp shades and table decorations. There is also a section on making paper doll clothing. The booklet provides some basic instructions on making the clothing at home  and also includes a price list for people to purchase fully-made dresses and dolls.

Art & Decoration in Crepe & Tissue Paper booklet, 1896
Dennison's imported tissue paper samples inside booklet
Paper doll clothing made from crepe paper had wonderful depth and texture not found in typical printed paper doll outfits. It was possible to create very detailed outfits with pleats and trim from the brightly-colored paper. Some of the outfits even included petticoats. I’m not sure if the crepe paper clothes in the museum’s collection were handmade or purchased pre-made but they are beautiful little pieces.
Dennison paper doll with jointed arms and legs, 1890s
Two-piece crepe paper dress, 1890s
Green crepe paper dress, 1890s
Dennison paper doll in crepe paper dress, 1890s
Paper dolls were not always simply sold as toys. They were also used for advertising a wide range of products from food and drinks to cars and soap. One example of this is a set of paper doll dresses distributed by Dr. Miles’ Medical Company. The company was founded in 1884 and began filling orders by mail in the 1890s. One of its most famous products was Dr. Miles’ Nervine which corrected “all disordered conditions of the nervous system.” Sometime around the turn of the century, they ran a promotion with paper dolls. If a customer sent one wrapper of any Dr. Miles’ Remedies and five 2 cent stamps, they would receive a beautiful paper doll and three complete outfits. The museum has two sets of these outfits for dolls named Edith and Grace but, unfortunately, does not have the dolls themselves.
Edith's outfits
Grace's outfits
Reverse of one of Grace's outfits

One of the appeals of paper dolls was, and still is, that they could be easily be made at home. All a child needed was paper, a pencil, and a pair of scissors to create her own paper dolls.

Homemade fashion paper doll and outfits, 1914
Homemade doll and clothing made with paper and pencil, c. 1910s


  1. interesting article as I can remember my sisters playing with them when I was little and changing the outfits or creating something really outlandish all for fun and enjoyment, wonder if any little girls still play with paper dolls ??

  2. I have 5 of the 6 Edith and Grace outfits. They were my Mothers. Sadly i dont have the doll either.