Friday, February 12, 2010

Moments in Black Doll History - Topsy

Topsy Collection courtesy of Kathy Winchester

In February 2008, I received the above photograph of various composition Topsy dolls, circa 1920s-1940s for inclusion in my second black-doll reference.  This delightful doll gathering prompted research on Topsy dolls and the addition of several to my collection.  

The use of the name Topsy for dolls was inspired by the black slave child of the same name featured in Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly, by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Prior to its book form, Uncle Tom's Cabin first appeared in the antislavery newspaper, The National Era, from June 1851 to April 1852.  

Chapter 20 of Uncle Tom's Cabin describes Topsy as follows:

She was one of the blackest of her race; and her round shining eyes, glittering as glass beads, moved with quick and restless glances over everything in the room. Her mouth, half open with astonishment at the wonders of the new Mas'r's parlor, displayed a white and brilliant set of teeth. Her woolly hair was braided in sundry little tails, which stuck out in every direction. The expression of her face was an odd mixture of shrewdness and cunning, over which was oddly drawn, like a kind of veil, an expression of the most doleful gravity and solemnity. She was dressed in a single filthy, ragged garment, made of bagging; and stood with her hands demurely folded before her.

From the early-to-mid 1900s, many doll companies chose the name, Topsy, for black dolls and incorporated a minimum of three braids or tufts of hair on the dolls' heads in an effort to portray the book's character.

1920s-1930s Composition  Topsy dolls
Goo-Goo Topsy, circa late 1930s-early 1940s

Ralph A. Freundlich, Inc.'s Goo-Goo Topsy (1937-1940s) with molded curls and Nancy Ann Storybook's (NASB) 1950s Topsy were both maids/servants/companions to the companies' white dolls, Eva and Eva, respectively.  These two dolls are examples of braidless Topsy dolls while Reliable's 1950s Topsy has two side braids.  (Also a character in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Eva is Topsy's polar opposite--described as a young, angelic white girl.)

NASB Topsy #126 circa 1949-1950

Topsy by Reliable 1950s

Chapter 20 of Uncle Tom's Cabin is devoted to Topsy and can be read in its entirety here.

Some 159 years post publication and the severely stereotypical characterization of Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin as unappealing, simple, and creature like, Topsy is having her say (through me).  She exerts that she was a victim of dire circumstances that most people would not have endured.  She says she was also victimized by the author's misunderstanding of human nature and her slanted ideals of beauty. 




  1. Thank you for sharing our American History of Black Dolls!

  2. Hello Sandy and Lady_Rose,

    Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment on my Topsy blog inspired by the character, Topsy, from Uncle Tom's Cabin.

    It is very difficult even now for me to consider it a fact that a child would not know their age or origin and basically exist as an unloved servant to be treated as an object. It is a dark and disturbing reality that many Topsy's existed in America and other areas of the world. Some may still be in existence, which is disheartening. My heart bleeds for Topsy.


  3. Hello -

    In case you haven't seen it, I wanted to share a 1962 5" googly-eyed, Japan-made Topsy - She's just too cute!! Here are three e-Bay auctions for this doll:

    I'm happy to say I won this listing. The first doll is a 4" 1966 Eegee and the one on the right is the 5" 1962 Topsy:

    Other e-Bay listing showing this same doll:

    You may want to copy those photos before they are removed, just so you have them for your records.

    All the very best to you always!

    1. Congratulations on your eBay win and thank you for sharing the links to the 1960s Japan-made Topsy dolls. I do already have one like this in my collection. The doll remains packed away with other dolls that I use in my Dolls with Books exhibit and was packed away at the time I posted this Topsy blog. My doll is the painted eyes version and was also found on eBay mint in package several years ago.


    2. Hello,

      Do you have anything on your site outlining the history of the Topsy-Turvy Rag Doll? For the benefit of those who are unaware, this doll depicts a black doll with a full, long skirt and when you flip over the skirt, there's a completely different white doll underneath.

      I'm not certain whether I have all my facts straight and would like to learn more about this doll. It is my understanding that these were originally hand-made at home by black families and specifically designed so little girls could play with their favorite doll without "offending" white folks...They could quickly flip over the skirt when someone white came into the room. What immediately (and sadly) comes to mind is the damage to a child's psyche and sense of self.

      Later, doll & pattern companies cashed in on the idea and came out with additional versions of so-called Topsy Turvy Dolls: Smiling/Crying, Awake/Asleep, Red Riding Hood/Grandma/Wolf, 2 different white dolls, etc. These are not authentic Topsy Turvy Dolls and (I feel) represent and underhanded and dismissive attempt to erase history.

      Please let me know if you know of any good reference material on this doll. I think this is a very important piece of historical black memorabilia.

      All the very best!

    3. Hello again, Latin Lady,

      I do not immediately recall posting a blog about topsy-turvy/topsy-turvey dolls, but I have answered at least one question in comment form regarding this doll type.

      Your history is quite accurate but there is more to the story.

      I can see the need to gather and share information about topsy-turvy dolls is needed here. I will plan to publish a post soon. With your permission, I would like to use your comment as part of the post. Thanks in advance.


  4. Thank you so much for your response. I did see the comment you have referred to and reviewed the corresponding Wiki. There appears to be rather importand detail missing on this topic.

    Yes, you do have my permission to use anything I've shared as part of your post. I do encourage you to write on the topic and share all that missing historic detail with doll enthusiasts around the world. You'd be giving voice where there has only been silence. I look forward to reading that material and thank you for your thoughtfulness.

    All the very best to you.

    1. You are welcome, LatinLady. It is definitely at the top of my "to blog about" list. I have your comments saved as unread emails to remind me to complete the Topsy-Turvy post.


  5. Please do not publish -

    Thought you may be interested in this beautiful little celluloid girl - If not, pass it on ($10):

    1. Thanks for the link! Described as celluloid, but I think this one might be composition.


  6. Hi,

    I was just looking over my dolls cabinet and realized I have some figurines that may interest your readers.

    Marge Crunkleton (famous for her little old wrinkled ladies [and men] of the Lincoln County Garden Club), and more recently for her beautiful mannequin heads, developed a series of little children in the 1980s entitled, Grandma's Garden. The figurines I have are Lucille, Honey Chile, Georgie - all from 1987. Honey Chile is a classic Topsy figurine.

    If you'd like a photo, I'd be happy to forward it but need to know where to sent it. I don't see that I can send it here.



  7. Hi I have a black doll that was mine as a child in 1980's and was wondering if she's worth anything. I have no idea!!!
    Only thing is she has no box and no original clothes!!!
    Any advice would be welcome thanks

    1. Searching eBay for completed auctions of the same doll or similar doll to note what buyers are paying in today’s market is another way to determine the average selling price.


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