By Nik Shultz
So by now you might have a sense of my history with dolls, but you still might be confused about why I find them interesting. Let’s look farther back in history, and see what they can tell us about people.
There’s significant archeological evidence to support that dolls are the oldest toys, although there’s also some argument about yo-yos. Objects in the shapes of humans and animals dating back to 2600 BCE have been found in what is now Iraq. Wooden paddle dolls from around 2000 BCE have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and traditional Japanese dolls originated in an ancient culture spanning 8000-200 BCE. The ancient Romans had dolls made of clay, wood, ivory, or rags, and the ancient Greeks had dolls with articulate arms in 200 BCE. Ancient Greece also had documentation of dolls as toys for children dated 100 BCE. But dolls weren’t just for play.
Many toys throughout history and today have had an instructional purpose. Children in ancient Rome were given toy weapons from an early age, to begin learning to fight. Dolls also had education purposes. But they were also used in religious and ritualistic ways, in many cultures throughout the world. Dolls in many African cultures were messengers of gods and ancestors to be used in ritual and educating children about religion, as were Kachina dolls made by the Hopi people of what is now Arizona. Effigy dolls, such as poppets and voodoo dolls, have been used for magic in cultures all over the world.
But I have a particular interest in Barbie dolls, which are fashion dolls. The first fashion dolls were made of porcelain by French companies that were popular in the late 1800s. The first modern fashion doll was the Bild Lilli Doll, a German manufactured fashion doll that was copied by the founder of Mattel and turned into Barbie.
At first it wasn’t thought that children would enjoy a doll modelled after an adult, but Bild Lilli dolls had become popular with children because of the wide range of dresses that could be bought separately, and Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler took note of this, as well as that her daughter often gave her dolls adult roles when playing, even though the dolls were meant to be children. In 1959 the first Barbie doll, who came with blonde or brunette hair and a black and white striped swimsuit, was presented to the American public, around 35,000 Barbie dolls were sold that year, and Barbie has been a cultural figure ever since.
And culture can be tracked in an interesting way through Barbie dolls. Fashion dolls are meant to show off and embody the trends at the times, but that extends beyond just clothing. The Barbie dolls in the early sixties were models of proper womanhood, teaching girls the roles they would play as adults, attracting potential husbands and being good wives. When women’s liberation movements were happening in the 70s, the first Barbie with eyes looking forward came out. Previously the dolls had only had eyes looking down and to the side, demurely. When I was a kid, Mattel was putting out a lot of career Barbies, in an effort to jump on the “Girls can do anything!” girl-power train. Recently, in response to years of complaints about the unrealistic beauty standards of Barbie dolls, Mattel started making different body types for their “Fashionista” line. Whether or not this worked, is a debate for a different blog perhaps, as this one is getting quite long.
I’ll leave you with these thoughts. Dolls have been important to human society for much of its history, and not just as objects of play. They are objects we made in our own image, and they shouldn’t be taken lightly. They can have cultural and psychological impacts, especially when put in front of impressionable young children.
Here are some sources of information if you would like to know more: