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Vintage and Antique Dolls

The Barbie Doll debuted in 1959 and, for decades since, has been the most popular doll in the world. Archaeologists digging in our landfills a thousand years in the future will be able to date the stratified findings as “AB” and “BB” — After Barbie and Before Barbie — by the numerous decayed plastic heads, arms, legs and torsos that begin to appear in the 1959 layer.

So, what about dolls BB? Archaeologists have found toy dolls, with movable limbs and removable clothing, that date to at least 200 BCE. Doll forms used for ritual purposes date to well before that time. The Madison Historical Society has scores of dolls that date to as early as circa 1840. They are not plastic. They were not mass produced, and few have any brand markings. Some are crude and some are very fine. They were made of porcelain, bisque, papier-mache, or corn husks — and all must have been loved by their owners, since, for all these years, they have been saved from the grisly fate of the Barbies at the landfill.

Among the finest and fanciest examples in our collection are the elaborate Queen Victoria and Prince Albert dolls, dressed in white silk and lace and adorned with flowers tied with satin ribbon. They have bisque heads and hands and carefully coiffed hairstyles. They are about 6 1/4 inches tall and date to about 1870. They’ve been very well cared for, before and ever since we acquired them from an unknown donor in 1980.

At the other end of the spectrum, firmly in the category of plain and simple, are another male and female pair of rag dolls made by the donor, Esther Pinch, circa 1940 — only 19 years BB. Their faces and limbs were formed with molded, painted and shellacked fabric. The dolls have wire-supported limbs and gray hair, and the male wears a cardboard top hat. One wonders if Esther modeled them after her parents. We keep them together as a pair, still.

The same is true of our pair of Civil War-era dolls, donated to us by famed Madison poet Grace Miner Lippincott. Made in Georgia in the 1860s, they are constructed entirely of cloth. He wears a tan jacket, white shirt, black bow-tie, and black pants. She wears a pale blue laced-trimmed waist and a flowered skirt. If you study their faces and read the notes on their accession card, you may agree that it seems he may have told her of his dislike of the Yankees until she is bored but must yet listen. Despite her peeved expression, these 20-inch-tall dolls companionably share a rocking chair at the Allis-Bushnell House.

We have several ethnic dolls representing French, German, Scandinavian, Chinese, African-American, and Native American people. A German female doll made in Munich circa 1904 is especially colorful. Just 6 1/2 inch tall, she has a bisque head and hands, jointed arms and legs, two long blond braids, a red mouth and brown eyes. She wears a green hat, green dress, red fiche and embroidered apron, a brown laced cummerbund and painted brown boots.

We have some souvenir dolls, too, including a corn husk First Nations doll marked “Niagara Falls” on its back. Likely from the 1920s, it’s a reminder that inexpensive dolls have long been created for the tourist trade.

So our large collection of Before Barbie dolls proves that these toys held a special place in children’s hearts long before Mattel found a way to monetize the human impulse to own — and to cherish — a small-scale model of a human figure. But how many of the modern-day AB dolls, now talking, walking, wetting, and even endowed with artificial intelligence, will be as loved as the BB ones in our collection?

Probably all of them.

To see these and other dolls in the Society’s collection, along with our doll furniture and quilts, visit the MHS Flickr page at Bob Gundersen is the photographer for the Madison Historical Society ( and is a member of its Board of Trustees. See all the images of the Society’s artifacts at