Rag Dolls: A Small History and Recreation

Aurora Rose Prindel

The Great Pennsic Doll project 2017, 19 dolls made for each Queen at the time in their kingdoms colors and most in the same time period as the reigning queen’s choice.

Summary

This project is dolls, specifically “rag” dolls throughout the medieval ages. I was motivated to do this project because I often see children at events playing with modern toys, so I wanted to research the use of toys for medieval children. I decided on dolls as the first stop because of my love of sewing.

Finding information on dolls can be challenging because they are miniature human figures, which can be confused with those used for religious purpose, idols, and even witchcraft. However, there remains plenty of evidence from portraits and written sources proving children played with human figures.

Historical Basis

Period dolls were often referred to as Poppets, which comes from the Latin word, pupa, originally meaning girl, but was also used to describe small images, such as shrine offerings (Orme,165). It wasn’t cited until the fourteenth century that toys were being manufactured for those that could afford them. But just like children today, medieval children must have had play things.

There are not a lot of extant examples of dolls but there are quite a few examples of other toys: wooden tops, spinners and metal toys, perhaps eluding to dolls being made of rags and more perishable materials (Kolchin). Many types of miniature human figures made of earthen clay tubes with faces and sometimes limbs, wooden objects of similar design often painted, wax or composite dolls, and a few dolls made of cloth have been cited over the centuries (Orme 169). The most basic example of a rag doll available is a Roman doll found in Egypt that is currently in the collection at the British Museum (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Roman Doll found in Egypt 1st -5th centuries



Figure 1: Roman Doll found in Egypt 1st -5th centuries

There is another rag doll mentioned in the Indiculus Superstitionum of the ninth century (King, 40), but there is no precise definition of the doll, other than a doll made of rags of cloth. In the twelfth century the Great Fairs became popular attractions and many poor people traveled long distances to buy and sell. Puppet shows were a feature at such gatherings and many girls must have longed for a beautiful doll dressed like the heroine in the play. It is likely that many a mother must have made dolls for child’s play toys.

German writers expressed the beauty of the dolls of medieval period, but the surviving examples of thirteenth century dolls are extremely rare and very plain. The few dolls found at the Strasbourg ruins are just simple clay shapes that were at one time, likely elaborately painted. One example is a mounted lady carrying a hunting hawk in her hand, and a few others depict knights in armor. In the fourteenth century the rise of a larger merchant class allowed for a lifestyle that had differed in earlier periods. This merchant class afforded an increase in commerce between European countries. The rapid increase in literacy also increased the documentary evidence, which allows for less of a dependence on archaeological finds. There is no evidence of a doll makers guild in England, but the German makers who exported their products to England, had formed into ridged structures by the late medieval period. (King) By the fifteenth century doll making in Germany was well established; the dolls were made of wood and were often jointed (fig. 2).

Young girl with Doll and Cradle c. 1540 Woodcut by Max Von Boehan
Figure 2: Young girl with Doll and Cradle c. 1540 Woodcut by Max Von Boehan

By the Sixteenth century there are frequent depictions of dolls and toys in paintings indicating that dolls were commonplace, at least in the lives of the wealthy children. An interesting development in the Sixteenth century was a much more varied pattern to dolls that were produced and though German makers led the field in doll making, dolls are known to have been made elsewhere. The ridged regulations of trade guilds were a hindrance to the German makers, one specific rule being that dolls’ heads could only be finished by craftsman painters meaning the product couldn’t be completed in the workshop (King). Although there are many illustrations of dolls very few representations remain. One of the few that remains is a depiction of a doll belonging to Charles IX daughter, (fig. 3 ) on display in the Royal Armory Collection in Stockholm, dating to 1590. Made of silk thread wrapped around a wire framework, she has an embroidered face, real hair, a simple linen chemise beneath a skirt and bodice and two petticoats one of velvet and another silk taffeta. Her sleeves are decorated with tiny pearls (King).

Figure3: Charles IX doll, 1590
Figure3: Charles IX doll, 1590

It has been thought this is a fashion doll to depict a particular fashion. Fashion dolls were often exchanged by the queens of England and France from the 1300’s on. Until the invention of colored printing plates in the 1700’s, dolls were the means by which fashions, particularly the French fashions, were distributed. This doll has also been referred to as a rag doll because it was made on the wire structure rather than a jointed wooden one that were often written about, which illustrates how deceptive the term rag doll can be.

Children are creatures of imitation, playing with dolls helps satisfy a child’s instinct to copy adults, especially for girls in a society dominated by domestic ideals. Rag dolls are often thought of as crudely made, but could be quite elaborate. Children and poorer family’s would have likely made their own dolls, possibly carved by their father or brothers of wood, made from rags and cloth by their mothers or sisters, or even just made of found objects like sticks, and roots.

Procedure, Materials, And Assembly

The body of my design is based on a Roman rag doll found in Egypt dating back to 1st– 5th centuries A.D. (Fig. 1) It is approximately 7.5 inches long made from Course linen, stuffed with papyrus and rags, it is currently on collection at the British Museum. Fairly well proportioned, it has a head and body, the arms are made from a roll of linen wrapped around the upper body. Colored wool, now faded, was applied to parts of the face and body. There is a glass bead present on its head where hair ornaments may have been attached. The sex of the doll is unknown but it has been suggested that it is female because dolls tend to be girl toys and thus likely was a rendition of its owner or other female figure.

I am unsure how this doll was assembled but I can deduce after a bit of research the body with legs and head is one piece. The head was probably sewn closed and stuffed first then the legs followed by the body. The arms were added after the body was stuffed, they were wrapped around the upper body and most likely stitched in place.

My doll rendition is made from a linen body stuffed with poly fiber. The head of the doll is rigid, stuffed with scrap linen to give it structure, and the arms are attached at the back instead of wrapped around the body. I made this change because it makes the doll easier to dress and offers a more streamlined body. The poly fiber is a modern substitute for some of the different possible stuffing documented, such as moss, wool roving or fabric scraps (Orme) I have stuffed my dolls with different types of fillings, but have found poly fiber mimics the wool roving the best. It is much cheaper to use and is more friendly to those with allergies who may be potential recipients of these as largess. I am very comfortable working in linen, so that is partially why I chose it as a material, and also because the original doll was made of linen, although likely a much tighter weave and courser linen.

The different written descriptions of dolls and their materials: wool, cloth, rags, plant fibers; is helpful in recreating dolls because finding physical examples existing isnt common. My doll’s clothing is based on portraits of later period works of higher status mixed with how children and families create toys in our current times. The roman doll my design is based on was found without clothes attached but had scraps and fibers of a different color than the body I can infer it had a cloth covering at one time. What a doll is depicted wearing seems to have varied based on social rank. Some were dressed simply to appear to humbler children, and some were dressed elaborately. A painting in 1502, depicts a 15 month old Isabelle, daughter to the Duke of Burgundy, holding a doll that looks like a noble woman wearing a headdress, collar, and long robe (fig. 5). Even though dolls were also being seen in portraits or depicted in writings as being elaborately dressed there are a few examples of simpler dolls. Brugurles ‘Childerens’ Games’ (Fig. 4) shows two girls playing with dolls in work clothes: a simple white wimple and white apron over a black dress.

An interesting doll shown in an illustration for Kunst und Lehruchlein, published in 1580, shows a girl carrying a doll which appears to have been made of a material other than wood as the arms hang limply. The print illustrates the custom of dressing a doll in miniature replica clothes the child’s owner wears, which is seen in 16th and 17th century portraits (King). Hair seems to be a question of social status and material, some dolls are found with real hair, some with silk thread like those few on display in the Royal Armory and others have none. I often use a yarn of some type to adorn the dolls with hair.

I have chosen to use my dolls in to model different verions of people in the SCA. With simple linen chemises, greek chitons, Norse wool apron dresses, silk and linen 14th Century dresses or later period clothes as well. I chose to embellish the dresses with simple embroidery and trim, glass beads, veils and sometimes hose. The hair can be gathered in a hair net, braided or left loose. Their faces have been left blank like the roman find instead of embroidered like some. These dolls are mash up of a few different styles of dolls documented throughout the ages, due to lack of information on any one single doll type.

Conclusion

I found this project to be both challenging and enlightening on the subject of dolls and children. Children from different time periods are all similar creatures, and boredom can be a universal issue best be solved by making toys and creating an imaginary place. I would love to advance this project further by creating the later period style dolls. These are often fabric bodies with attached head or faces and hands made of wood, porcelain or earthenware. Or the wire wrapped dolls covered with a silk fiber.

From all of my research it can be concluded that rag dolls existed over many centuries appearing to be clothed in fashions of the time period. Because dolls are often miniature humans, discerning them from votive, tributaries and witchcraft is challenging. Between the recreational, religious, and magical it can be difficult to assign a particular category to miniature human figures found at dig sites.


Citations

Gröber, Karl, Children’s Toys of Bygone Days: A History of Playthings of all Peoples From Prehistoric Times to the Nineteenth Century, (trans. P. Hereford) London, Batsford, 1928.

King, Constance Eileen. The Collector’s History of Dolls. London: R. Hale, 1978. Print.

Kolchin, B. A., and A. V. Chernet︠s︡ov. Wooden Artefacts from Medieval Novgorod. Oxford, England: B.A.R., 1989. Print.

Lernestål, Erik. Costume Doll “Pandora” , Doll, Dolls. N.d. Royal Armory Collection, Stockholm. Open Image Archive. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Children. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001. Print.

“Medieval Toys You Can Make.” Web log post. Doll Museum. N.p., 06 Feb. 2012. Web

“Rag Doll, 1905,1021.13.” British Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Gauvard, Claude. “De Grace Especial, Crime, État Et Société En France à La Fin Du Moyen Âge (Crime, State and Society in France in the Late Middle Ages).”Medieval Year” 12.25 (1993): 150-53. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

8 Replies to “Rag Dolls: A Small History and Recreation”

  1. Thank you for sharing this–thoroughly delightful presentation! I’m inspired!
    Great job!

    Arlys o Gordon, OL, OP

  2. I enjoyed your research! So cool to read about the history of toys. Your dolls themselves are appealing, and I love the careful details of fabrics and hats. I can’t wait to see what you do with later period dolls if you decide to follow that route.

  3. What a wonderful idea! I love recreating the little items that would have filled our persona’s daily lives and toys are such an important part of that life. Such a lovely way to make the SCA more authentic and bring joy through personalized largesse too. I was delighted to find that I guessed correctly on who many of the dolls were – well done in capturing these individuals! Thank you for sharing your process.

    Inga

  4. Well written and easy to follow. A lovely largess gift I’m sure children would delight in. I, too, recognized a few people.
    It would make a wonderful class.

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