The Web of Childhood: Media Ecology and Dolls

February 1, 2016

Dolls are complex and paradoxical toys where subtle issues of parent-child control can come into play. Parents and children had different motives for employing dolls – parents wanted girls to play with dolls for instruction and socialization, and children played with dolls because they were fun. Dolls were used to teach American girls lessons in domesticity, specifically needle-crafts such as sewing and knitting, that were necessary to maintain home economy. In an ephemeral way, dolls before the advent of electronic devices could become an extension of the child’s very being.


“We wove a web in childhood, a web of sunny air.” Quote by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), drawing by Meredith Eliassen, 2016.

Prior to the Victorian era, historians agree that doll play for boys and girls was a means for creating inner-landscapes where “problems of being” could be resolved with play. During the early-nineteenth century, German educator, Frederick Froebel (1782-1852) revolutionized early education, when he showed that young children were capable of rapid skill acquisition when they were allowed to use materials that employed their tendency towards active play as they developed their minds. Although Froebel focused on specific games and activities using balls and shapes, he felt that all toys should be suited to the particular intellectual demands of children at specific ages. Thus, the sophistication of the toy or doll was designed to match that of the child. Froebel said: “Play, then, is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of the child’s soul. It is the purest and most spiritual product of the child, and at the same time it is a type and copy of human life at all stages and in all relations.”

With the influence of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), a dichotomy emerged where dolls became the exclusive domain of girls. Queen Victoria was significant in expanding the educational functions of dolls in the nursery. Even before her reign, Princess Victoria collected wood dolls — and with guidance from her governess — she sewed clothing for her dolls until she was about fourteen years old. The Princess’s portrait dolls represented people in the court and famous personalities of her time. These dolls served an additional function beyond being toys; they documented social history in the Royal Household. This use of dolls in socializing girls quickly spread from England to America and remained popular.

Karin Calvert asserted in her book, Children in the House (1992), that parents wanted their children to conform to very distinct and rigid social roles existing for men and women. Boys should “take” their pleasure with active play while girls “busied” themselves by imitating women’s domestic duties. In studying the educational functions of the doll, one must begin by examining gender roles that required girls to need such careful training to be good wives and mothers. Economic and social changes related to the Industrial Age dramatically impacted family life. Not only did fathers leave the immediate household in order to find work, but families also moved to urban areas where there was less child-care support from extended families. For this very reason, women’s literature during the mid-nineteenth century filled a void for women by providing child-rearing advice. Mothers were expected to guide and discipline children on a daily basis, using a combination of love, reason, approbation, and rewards. The Victorian concept of the ideal mother — a woman always available and always loving — was prescribed in women’s literature. She was strict but loving, ever affectionate with her brood, and always successful in commanding absolute obedience from her children. Popular culture exalted the role of mothers, and mothers served as the emotional center of domestic life.

While sewing and textile production was traditionally important to domestic economy along with dairying, food preparation, housekeeping and child care, its importance seemed to increase during the Victorian era. Women sometimes utilized these skills as an occupation to supplement family incomes, but they were seldom able to earn enough to live independent lives. In 1837, Eliza Farrar (1791-1870) commented in the Young Lady’s Friend: “A woman who does not know how to sew is as deficient in her education as a man who cannot write.”

In 1843, Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880), in her classic work, the Little Girl’s Own Book, gave basic instructions for plain sewing, mending, knitting, along with patterns for competing simple projects. She said: “There is no accomplishment of any kind more desirable for a woman, than neatness and skill in the use of a needle. To some, it is an employment not only useful, but absolutely necessary; and it furnishes a tasteful amusement to all. The first and most important branch, is plain sewing. Every little girl, before she is twelve years old should know how to cut and make a shirt with perfect accuracy and neatness. Child also commented that: “At infant schools in England, children of three and four years old make miniature shirts, about big enough for a large doll.”

A girl’s education in sewing occurred at home — she was instructed by her mother, older females in the household, or older friends. However, as a young girl, her education could be self-directed if she had a doll to care for. Children’s magazines such as St. Nicholas, included articles for children with instructions for sewing or knitting, along with doll stories that contained basic instructions for creating doll clothes. Some articles included patterns, but many children had to copy illustrations from books and magazines in order create their own patterns. In the process, they learned all aspects of dressmaking and basic tailoring. “Child included a selection in her book called, “Dolls”: “The dressing of dolls is a useful as well as a pleasant employment for little girls. If they are careful about small gowns, caps, and spencers, it will tend to make them ingenious about their own dresses, when they are older. I once knew a little girl who had twelve dolls; some of them were given to her; but the greater part she herself made from rags, and her older sister painted their lips and eyes. She took it into her head that she would dress the dolls in the costumes of different nations. No one assisted, but by looking in a book called Manners and Customs, she dressed them all with great taste and propriety… I assure you they were an extremely pretty sight. The best thing of all was the sewing was done with the most perfect neatness. When little girls are alone, dolls may serve for company. They can be scolded and advised, and kissed, and taught to read, and sung to sleep — and anything else the fancy of the owner may devise.

In 1848, Mrs. Helen C. Knight actually opposed sending girls to school. She commented in the Mother’s Assistant: The sphere of the female is at home; and an ignorance of her duties there, brings discredit and unhappiness to herself, and discomfort and sorrow to her family. When is the best season for learning these duties? It must be in youth; they must form a portion of every day’s striving and learning; they must be nourished in our daily habits. It is the child which must be taught to take care of its chamber and its drawers, to bear and forbear with its little brother, to come in with its young energies to the help of mother, and to feel the importance of sewing in the manufacture of its own garments.

American textbooks from the Victorian period document gender roles of the time in their texts and illustrations. More than learning to read, children were being educated to take their place in society. McGuffey Eclectic Readers were the most widely distributed school-books in America from 1836 until 1910. Although the McGuffey Eclectic Readers were criticized for being didactic and moralistic, this series is considered by many to be an important force in shaping the consciousness of Middle America. While early editions contain few references to dolls, revisions of the Eclectic Readers contained passages where dolls teach moral lessons about sharing and caring for possessions.

McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Reader contains a lesson called, “The Torn Doll,” where young Mary Armstrong learns the importance of taking proper care of her doll. One day while Mary is playing in the yard, she abandons her favorite doll on the porch where the family dog, named Dash can find it. Dash grabs the doll and roughly plays with it, and tears it. The next morning when Mary finds her broken doll, she harshly scolds the dog. Her mother comes to the dog’s defense and says, “You must not blame the dog, Mary, for he does not know it is wrong for him to play with your doll. I hope this will be a lesson to you hereafter, to put your things away when you are through playing.”

This simple story contains two lessons. First, Mary developed a habit of leaving her books and playthings around, so her mother had to pick them up and return them to their proper places. Mary’s books became spoiled, and her toys were broken. For most families, resources such as time and money for children were scarce. Thus, children were taught to take care of their possessions since they might be difficult to replace. The second lesson relates to the treatment of less-fortunate beings — notice how the mother says that the dog does not know that it is wrong to play with Mary’s doll. The mother is telling Mary to set an example and not to blame others for her own carelessness.

In America, the Victorian doll was a pragmatic teaching device. Doll historian, Miriam Formanek-Brunell asserted that beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, American men and women created dolls that were distinct from those made in Europe. The gender-based traditions that emerged in Victorian America produced uniquely American dolls. Women, using individual craftsmanship, produced dolls that expressed soft sensuality, while men created “realistic” mechanical doll products. In 1873, American doll maker, Izannah Walker secured a patent for a press-molded, elastic-knitted, stockinet-fabric that was wonderful for making dolls that were inexpensive. Walker dolls were easy to clean and unlikely to injure children that might fall on them. However, in most Victorian households, where the fathers controlled the purse-strings, to purchase dolls for daughters was not a priority, so mothers often had to improvise. Many middle-class mothers rejected manufactured dolls and encouraged their daughters to made and care for cloth dolls that were thought to teach girls virtue and understanding.

In a story called “The Birth-Day,” written during the 1870s, the absence of a doll is used to teach moral values. In this story a widower named Mr. Willson gives his young daughter Alice a coin for her birthday, but he does not tell her how she should spend the money. Alice tells him that she wants to buy a new doll. He responds, “Is that the best use you can make of it?” Alice replies, “Yes, I am sure a new doll is what I want most.” Instead of taking her directly to the toyshop, he takes her to a very poor neighborhood. In an attic apartment the two find a poor woman sitting near the small window, stitching a shirt. The room is sparsely furnished, and two sick children, who might have been about three or four years old, lay asleep on the floor. The children have not eaten because their mother cannot afford any food — the family has recently been burned out of their home. Alice listens to their story and then discretely leaves her coin behind as they leave the tiny apartment. Mr. Willson seeing his daughter’s generosity, later tells her, “I could not give a present to you and the poor woman too, so I gave it to you to see what you would do with it. I am pleased with your choice, and so I am sure your mother would have been, if she had lived to see your self-denying conduct.”

The absence of the mother figure in this story is significant for the girl to desire a store-bought doll. The moral lesson comes from the girl’s priorities that are demonstrated through her choice to give her gift away. Beyond the moral lesson of charity, this story provides a practical lesson for girls – the poor mother who sews to earn money in the home may earn a small wage, but her efforts demonstrate that she is worthy of charity.

In 1896 Caswell Ellis and G. Stanley Hall published a survey that focused on how children played and interacted psychologically with dolls. It also examined child rituals related to doll play such as naming, feeding, discipline, and how children created imaginary social lives for their dolls. The Ellis & Hall study found that perhaps nothing so fully opens up the child’s soul in the same way that well-developed doll play does. Ellis and Hall said: “Whispered confidences with the doll are often more intimate and sacred than with any human being. The doll is taught those things learned best or in which the child has most interest. The little mother’s real ideas of morality are best seen in her punishments and rewards of her doll. Her favorite foods are those of her doll. The features of funerals, weddings, schools, and parties which are re-enacted with the doll, are those which have most deeply impressed the child. The child’s moods, ideals of life, dress, etc., come to utterance in free and spontaneous doll play.”

The Ellis and Hall study found that the educational value of dolls was enormous, and that doll passion was strongest for children between the seven and ten years of age, reaching its climax between eight and nine.   Ellis & Hall commented that a child’s doll: “Educates the heart and will, even more than the intellect, and to learn how to control and apply doll play will be to discover a new instrument in education of the very highest potency.” The study concluded that: “Many children learn to sew, knit, and do millinery work, observe and design costumes, acquire taste in color, and even prepare food for the benefit of the doll. Children who are indifferent to reading for themselves sometimes read to their doll and learn things they would not otherwise do in order to teach it — or are clean, to be like it.”

While parents used dolls as instruments of control so that girls were taught the mundane tasks of domesticity — for girls — dolls became vehicles for flights of fancy. During doll play, girls made and controlled the rules for play, and dolls provided girls with freedom for self-expression. The irony was that with this imagined-freedom and control in doll play, girls also received the practical socialization and instruction that parents wanted them to get. The reality of child culture meant that in the hands of children, dolls became vessels for the children’s imaginations. Applying these educational perspectives today, we can create dolls and toys that are neutral and vessel-like so that children can work through the issues of their daily lives. Doll designers today need to remember the essence of “childness” – children who can happily entertain themselves with an empty box once the novelty of the toy contained within that box has worn off, have the ability to create imaginary worlds that hold very real solutions. These inner worlds are necessary. When our toys create total-entertainment-experiences, we do not need to develop our own imaginations, and thus, we loose our ability to imagine. If you look at creative people, they need a lot of time alone – for whatever reason – this is the time and place where they develop ideas. When children are young, we need to provide them with space for imagining so they can discover practical insights and prepare for the adult world.

Sources used:

Calvert, Karin, Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992), pp.109-112.

Child, Lydia Maria, Little Girl’s Own Book, (New York: Edward Kearney, 1843), pp. 78-82.

Caswell Ellis and G. Stanley Hall conducted a survey of based upon informal examination of children from many different ages that was circulated as a questionnaire among eight hundred teachers and parents. The survey focused on the types of dolls that children preferred, how they played and interacted psychologically with dolls, and doll/child rituals such as naming, feeding, discipline, sleep, hygiene, sickness and death and the doll’s social life. The results were published in “A Study of Dolls.” Pedagogical Seminary. Vol. 4 (December 1896): 129-175.

Farrar, E.W.R., The Young Lady’s Friend, (Boston: American Stationer’s Co., 1837).

Fromanek-Brunell, Miriam, Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830-1930, (Baltimore, MD.:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), p. 2.

Hewitt, Karen (and Louise Roomet), Educational Toys in America: 1800 to the Present, (Burlington, VT.: The Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont, 1979), pp. 8-10.

Knight, Helen C., “School Learning,”The Mother’s Assistant, and Young        Lady’s Friend, (Boston: William C. Brown, 1849), 14: 1 (January 1849), pp. 9-12.

Leslie, Madeline. “The Birth-Day,” The Silk Apron and Other Stories. (Boston: Henry A. Young, circa. 1870), pp. 34-43.

McGuffey, William Holmes, “The Torn Doll,” in Second Eclectic Reader, (New York: American Book Company, 1881, 1909), pp. 51-53.

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