Monday, February 26, 2018

Ideal's Saralee Negro Doll 1951-1953 "An Ambassador of Goodwill"

Saralee Negro Doll (1951-1953) is an 18-inch (actual size) vinyl doll with cloth body, modeled after the likeness of African American children.  The above doll is shown with its original box (a rare find!).  Note the given name was "Saralee Negro Doll" and Saralee is one word.  Photo courtesy of Black Legacy Images.

Originally published in Vol. 1, Issue 1 of Black Doll-Ezine (BDE) in February 2002, the below article in its original form remains online at the BDE Angelfire website.  Because that site is infected with pop-ups that may be harmful if clicked, I no longer share links to BDE articles.  For secure-reading purposes, an updated version of the BDE article on Saralee is shared below.

A closer look at the box label reveals the slogan:  "More Than Just a Doll... An Ambassador of Good Will."  To the right is stamped the number 3273 (possibly the stock number) and the word, BLUE is above the number.  Saralee's white organdy dress and bonnet were trimmed with either yellow or blue.  (Photo courtesy of Pinterest.)

In 1951, when the Saralee Negro doll entered the market, this historical doll, created by Sara Lee Creech of Belle Glade, Florida, manufactured by Ideal Toy Corporation, would be the first play doll of its kind. It was designed specifically to be a "quality doll" with true-to-life black features, not just a white doll colored brown.  Not only does the Saralee doll possess a unique history of what sparked its creation, but its marketing campaign is also quite interesting.

According to the book, Florida Pathfinders, after witnessing two little black girls playing with white dolls outside a Florida post office as they waited for their mother, Sara Lee Creech was forced to wonder why these girls and others like them did not have quality dolls in their likeness. In chapter 3 of Virginia Lynn Moylan's book, Zora Neale Hurston's Final Decade (University Press of Florida, 2011), she provides more details about Saralee's creation, which was conveyed by Sara Lee Creech.

The idea for the doll sprang from an epiphany following a conversation [Creech] had with Louise Taylor, a black mother, who complained that the only quality dolls available for her daughters were white.  A few days later, Creech noticed two black girls playing with white dolls and was struck by the contrast.  Convinced that black children needed and deserved a doll that would reflect the physical beauty of their own race, she decided to look into the matter.

"In 1949, she launched a campaign to create what her friend, Zora Neale Hurston (writer, folklorist, and anthropologist) described as an 'anthropologically correct' doll." [Florida Pathfinders]  According to Moylan, Hurston suggested to Mrs. Creech to name the doll Saralee.

Scan from Moylan's book illustrates Sara Creech, Maxeda von Hess, Walter White (the then executive director of the NAACP), former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ralph Bunche (politician/1950 Nobel Prize for Peace winner) as they examine models of the Saralee doll.  According to Moylan, the various models were created to determine the proper color for the doll.  Plans to produce siblings for Saralee were discussed; however, the Ideal doll company decided it would not be cost-effective to manufacture siblings.

Additional doll heads are examined by Mrs. Roosevelt and theatrical producer, John Golden, in a scan from Judith Izen's Collectors Guide to Ideal Dolls:  Identification and Value Guide (Collector Books, 1994).

Ms. Creech initially conducted a one-woman mission to create the Saralee doll. Later, with the help of several prominent community leaders on the local and national level (former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and political scientist Ralph Bunche, just to name a few), her mission was set in motion. Ms. Creech was also graciously assisted by Mrs. Roosevelt's speech coach, Maxeda von Hess, who was able to persuade Shelia Burlingame, a sculptor, to assist in the Saralee Negro doll-creation project.

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the biggest supporters of this doll project.  According to Moylan's book, "After seeing the photos [of the doll head castings], Hurston suggested a name for the doll, Saralee, after its creator, and advised Creech to show the models to 'well-known and influential Negroes' who could help the project along."  Hurston went on to introduced Creech to several of her "illustrious friends and acquaintances."  It was Hurston's friend and poet, Georgia Douglas Johnson, who dubbed the doll "a little ambassador of peace."  

The following quote (circa 1950/1951), included in Moylan's book, is from a letter of praise Hurston wrote to Creech after viewing photographs of castings created for the doll.
Please allow me to say how pleased I am that you let me see pictures of the Negro dolls that you plan to put on the market... The thing that pleased me most... was that you, a White girl, should have seen into our hearts so clearly, and sought to meet our longing for understanding of us as we really are, and not as some would have us.  That you have not insulted us by a grotesque caricature of Negro children, but conceived something of real Negro beauty.
—Zora Neale Hurston

As illustrated in the two previous photos and in one additional photo below, several different head molds were created.  The other head sculpts were created for two reasons:   1) to determine the doll's complexion and 2) to create siblings for Saralee.  A big brother, a big sister, and a little brother were planned. Chestnut brown was the color chosen for Saralee's complexion.  Unfortunately, only a little brother has been documented.  The fate of the other ethnically correct sculpted heads is uncertain.

Saralee's Little Brother is shown above in a photograph courtesy of Gregory Corbin.

In a side-by-side photo of Saralee (left) and her brother (right), the subtle differences in their head sculpts are apparent.  Little Brother's face is wider and his hairline forms a well-defined Widow's peak. Photo courtesy of Black Legacy Images.

In a promotional photograph from December 11, 1951, noted opera singer, Leontyne Price, poses with the Saralee Negro doll.  Photo Source:  The Internet.

Jet magazine ad for Saralee was published in the December 6, 1951, issue.

In addition to receiving promotional backing from prominent African Americans and other prestigious individuals who realized the doll's importance to the African American community and to the doll world at large, Saralee Negro Doll was advertised in major publications.  The above Jet magazine advertisement is an example of the doll's print promotion.  

Saralee was featured on pages 61 and 62 in the December 17, 1951, Life magazine article, "Doll for Negro Children."

Saralee's debut was published in a full spread in the December 17, 1951, issue ofLife magazine.  Images of some of the children, whose facial features were studied before the doll was sculpted, are included at the top of the article on page 61 with images of Saralee's profile and full face at the bottom of that page.

Closer look at some of the children whose facial features were studied prior to the creation of the Saralee Negro Doll

On page 62, the final page of the Life article, are images of Sara Lee Creech and sculptress Sheila Burlingame.  Head sculpts of the proposed family of Saralee dolls and a final photo of a little girl admiring the produced Saralee Negro doll conclude the article.  Scans of these are shown next.

The above captions read:  CREATOR, Miss Creech, sells insurance, works in interracial group.  SCULPTRESS Sheila Burlingame holds one of the finished head models.
This photo is captioned:  FULL FAMILY will include "Little Miss" (top), "Little Brother" (center left), "Little Sister" (bottom).  To date only the baby (center, right) is for sale.
The Life magazine caption reads:  IN USE:  baby doll delights 5-year-old Judy Lyons, who immediately began feeding it Pablum and cuddling it, then named it Diane after a white playmate.

Several toy catalogs also featured the Saralee doll.

Saralee was offered for sale for $5.99 in a 1952 Alden's catalog.

Saralee also appeared in the Sears 1952 Christmas Wishbook where the doll's name was incorrectly spelled as two words, Sara Lee.  Sears also elected to use the word "colored" instead of the doll's given name, Saralee Negro Doll.

In the early 1990s, my black-doll interest reverted from modern artist dolls to vintage dolls with a heavy focus on dolls made during the decade of my birth. Reading either Black Dolls, an Identification and Value Guide, book 1 or Collector's Guide to Ideal Dolls, book 1 led to my initial discovery of the Saralee Negro doll. Afterward, an immediate mission was launched to acquire the doll for my personal collection. Pre-Internet access, with reliance solely on monthly doll-for-sale periodicals, delayed locating the doll, but eventually, the mission was accomplished.  

My beloved Saralee entered my collection in the early 1990s.  She wears her original tagged white organdy dress with blue embroidered trim, and original socks and shoes.  Her bonnet is replaced.

Reproduction Saralee by Ashton-Drake

In 2002, the little doll with a proud history was reproduced by the Ashton-Drake Galleries of Niles, Illinois. The new, 17-inch Saralee was reproduced in porcelain from sculptor Sheila Burlingame's original mold.

"Just like the original doll, Saralee's adorable face was specially sculpted to look like a real African American baby with brown eyes, an open/closed mouth, and molded, painted black hair.  The reproduction Saralee is wearing a replica of her original, yellow-ribbon-trimmed white organdy dress with matching bonnet and panties.  Little white lace-up shoes and white socks accent her outfit."  The reproduction Saralee retailed for $99.99.  (Reproduction description, courtesy of Davis Enterprizes.)

Saralee Negro Doll, 1951 by Ideal is posed with Ashton-Drake's 2002 reproduced porcelain doll.

Collectors were excited about the reproduction doll and eagerly anticipated adding it to their collections.  Like the original 1951 Saralee, the porcelain reproduction is now only available on the secondary market.  The reproduction is worth having, but nothing is better than owning an original Saralee Negro Doll and her quite elusive little brother.

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  1. Oh, how sweet! I was wondering if you had a Sara Lee doll.

  2. Thanks a lot for sharing this article and for showing us your Saralee doll.

    1. You're welcome! This little doll has so much history, Arlette.


  3. Good Morning! This was so great to read as I wait for my son. I love both Sara Lee and her brother. Ashton Drake did a wonderful job but your original, OMG!! She looks so perfect and her replacement bonnet just makes her look adorable. I had to laugh when you mentioned her original shoes. I know your dolls be over with shoes missing, :)

    1. Good Morning, Brini! Thanks for taking the time to read this post. She and her brother are sweet dolls. I'm on the lookout for him now. Yes, Saralee has her now 67-year-old shoes!



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