Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Moments in Black Doll History - W. B. Abbott's Sun Tan Dolls

W. B. Abbott and his Sun Tan dolls, possibly during the 1950s (click image to enlarge)

Walter B. Abbott (?? – 1967) is another early pioneer in the manufacture of black dolls. A relative of the trailblazing Black publisher, Robert S. Abbott, founder of The Chicago Defender, W. B. Abbott was the paper’s business manager by day, and eventual doll maker by night.

According to the newspaper article, “Sun Tan Dolls: Pioneering effort in positive images,” by Mel Tapley, NY Amsterdam News, Saturday, December 24, 1988, “Back in 1918, [W. B. Abbott] noted that the dolls sold in department stores were stereotypes… toys for boys were universal, but girl toys were confined to doll babies.” To Abbott, black dolls “were very degrading and made to look like mammies or picaninnies.”

According to Abbott’s son, Walter Abbott, [Jr.] who was a Johnson Publications executive at the time the NY Amsterdam News article was written, “Dad asked the help of a German friend in the development of a formula for a brownskin sun tan paint to be used on dolls which would appeal to all children of color. After several years of experimentation, he came up with several shades of black, brown and beige...”

“...On November 23, 1921, Abbott incorporated a business called Nutshell Variety Sales Company, better known as N. V. Sales Co…” After several white doll companies refused his request to use the brownskin paint formula on their dolls, Abbott eventually purchased 50 percent interest in a failing doll company and began “manufacturing his own line of Sun Tan dolls.

“With the use of The Chicago Defender, he began advertising his dolls in the widely circulated paper. He also started a mail order business and began getting orders from all over the country and from abroad.”

After The Chicago Defender concentrated business operations from its headquarters and closed “the New York Office [where Abbott was stationed, he] continued manufacturing dolls until post-World War II restrictions on the use of materials in paints “hampered expansion of” Abbott’s “promising doll manufacturing company.”  According to the article, "Abbott retired in 1953," which may be the year Sun Tan doll manufacture ended.

Thank you Mr. Abbott for being a pioneering trailblazer in the manufacture of positive black/Sun Tan dolls. 

23-inch Composition Boy; 26-inch Composition Girl (Sun Tan dolls?)

As a curious collector, I would love to know where Boyd's, Garvey's, and Abbott's dolls are today.  I own the above two composition dolls that might possibly be attributed to Abbott.  The Amersterdam News article that prompted this blog accompanied these two dolls, but I do not know if they are Sun Tan dolls.  Their seller did not know either.

This uncertainty leaves me wondering if any dolls by Boyd, Garvey, or Abbott survived. Other than being black, how did they look? Were they ethnically correct or mere brown versions of white dolls?




  1. Quite clever to name them "Sun Tan" dolls during that particular time period.

  2. I love the name Sun Tan Dolls! I had never heard of Mr.Abbott and his dolls. Thanks for the info Debbie.


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