TWO HUNDRED YEARS OF BLACK PAPER DOLLS
“ A new and very pretty invention is the so-called English doll which we have lately received from London. It is
properly a toy for little girls, but is so pleasing and tasteful that mothers and grown women will likely also want to
play with it, the more since good or bad taste in dress or coiffeur can be observed and, so to speak, studied. The doll
is a young female figure cut out of stout cardboard. It is about 8 in. high, has simply curled hair, and is dressed in
underclothing and corset. With it go six complete sets of tastefully designed dresses which are cut out of paper, etc., etc.”
An advertisement in the Journal der Moden, 1791
Paperdolls as playthings date back to the mid-1700s. A popular pastime for French women of the aristocracy, they would create miniature dolls of themselves and paper costumes of the period. Handmade paper was an expensive commodity the common wage earner could not afford. With capital created by the Atlantic slave trade, new technologies came into being; paper could be mass-produced. In 1810, S & J Fuller, an English toy company and children’s book publisher, printed the first manufactured paper doll, Little Fanny.
In 1863 McLoughlin Brothers of New York, the largest publisher of children’s books and toys, prints Topsey, a fictional character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the first mass-produced paper doll in the United States depicting an African American. In the 1870s the company began using chromolithography, a printing process that enabled the company to produce large quantities of colorful paper dolls more inexpensively. By the 1880s paper dolls were well established as playthings, and the early 1900s saw an explosion of them printed in book form, in expensive box sets, in comic strips and in magazines for women and girls. Good Housekeeping, The Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Home Companion, The Delineator, and McCall’s included sets of entire white families, complete with maids, mammies, butlers, and the occasional black child with an assortment of tattered clothes.
Topsey was joined, near the turn of the century, by another fictionalized character, Aunt Jemima, who would become a 20th century cultural icon; the prototype for the mammy: a plump, dark-skinned, selfless, asexual, perpetually grinning house servant. From the 1890s, well into the mid-1950s, the mammy image would repeatedly appear in advertising, in film, in popular literature, on television and in paper doll form. So beloved a character was she, that Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to be nominated for, and to win an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress), would do so in 1940 for playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind. Glamorous Dorothy Dandridge would be the second, nominated in 1954 for a Best Actress award, a first for a black woman, for her sultry performance in Carmen Jones.
The 1930s through the 1950s have been called the “golden age” of paper dolls. It was when their popularity and production were the greatest – million of girls played with them. In 1943, the Mills Brothers ' recording "Paper Doll" sells over 6.5 million copies, staying on the charts for 36 weeks, with a jute box "soundie" featuring 20-year old Dorothy Dandridge. But not until the 1950s did black fashion and glamour paper dolls begin appearing in newspapers, mainly in the comic strips of female illustrators Jackie Ormes (Torchy’s Togs) and Dale Messick (Brenda Starr). With the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, integrated paper doll sets and, later, black pride paper dolls could be found on toy store and drug store shelves. By the 1970s African American paper dolls had gone mainstream as Barbie and Ken were joined by their black counterparts, Cara and Curtis. Diahann Carroll, starring in her own television series Julia, would have five paper dolls released in the first two years of the show being aired. During the 1980s, celebrities, sports and action figures, and a variety of fashion paper dolls became part of the mainstream. In the last decade of the twentieth century, paper doll artists created likenesses of Josephine Baker, Martin Luther King, Jr., Vanessa Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Diana Ross, Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Dennis Rodman, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Beyonce, Tiger Woods, Star Jones, Denzel Washington, Nelson Mandela, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, to name a few.
At the dawn of the 21st century, paper dolls are being printed in limited quantities in a variety of media: Sticker, die-cut wood, cloth, and magnetic paper dolls. Downloadable and interactive paper dolls can be found on the Internet, and computer software exists for making personalized paper dolls. For collectors and enthusiasts, the preference continues to be uncut paper dolls printed on paper and illustrated by human hands.
A broad spectrum of African American silhouettes dot America’s cultural landscape. Many of these images are a result of post-civil rights gains and the resourcefulness of entrepreneurial artists and performers whose music and lifestyles infiltrate popular culture. With societal shifts and evolving attitudes, and the talent of forward thinking artists and publishers Black paper dolls are coming of age: Heroes of the West: African Americans Who Helped Shape History, Celia Cruz, and President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have joined the pantheon of paper people.
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