Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Topsy-Turvy a.k.a. Topsy-Turvey, Double Doll, Two-Sided Doll

What appears to be simple cloth dolls are Topsy-Turvy or double-headed dolls.  The dolls share one body and a long skirt that hides the head and arms of the doll underneath (see next image).

L-R:  Circa 1980s souvenir Topsy-Turvys from Jamaica and Barbados, respectively;  one head of the Jamaica doll is asleep; the other is awake.  The Jamaica doll is featured on page 40 of my first black-doll reference, The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls (2003).
This lengthy post was promised but delayed because it involved extensive research and time to compile my findings.  The most recent research, beyond what I have done previously on the subject of Topsy-Turvy dolls, was inspired by the interest I share with blog reader, LatinLady, in exploring the mystery of the Topsy-Turvy doll's original concept.

First made by enslaved servants, why was there a need for one head to be hidden underneath the shared skirt?  Was the doll made for slave children, for white children, or for both?

My interest in investigating the Topsy-Turvy history was piqued on 03/29/2013 by LatinLady, who wrote:


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!


HistoricFolkDolls.com has published a very comprehensive history of the Topsy-Turvy doll, which interested parties are urged to read.  In 2008, in chapter 1, on page 46 of my book, Black Dolls A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion, I shared before and after images of a circa 1930s cloth Topsy-Turvy that arrived in disrepair.  The images and associated text are shared below.  Particular attention should focus on the text that follows the "Other" subheading where a condensed version of Topsy-Turvy's history is documented:

Illustrations 48a and 48b, Topsy Turvy (cloth), ca. 1940s (before and after restoration)
Material: Cloth
Height: 10in/25.4cm
Hair/Eyes/Mouth: Painted hair, eyes, and mouths
Clothing: Black doll’s red and white polka dot dress reverses to white doll’s pink, white and blue floral-print dress.
Value: $75
Other: Topsy Turvy, also known as Double Doll, Two-in-One, and Upside Down dolls first appeared in the South in the 1800s. These dolls share one body. Each doll’s dress or skirt, when flipped, hides the other doll underneath. It is widely believed that servants made these dolls for their children using
dress scraps. The slave child would play with the white side in the absence of the slave master. Upon the slave master’s approach, the child would flip the doll over to the black side to hide the forbidden-to-play-with white doll. Others postulate the dolls were made by slaves for their masters’ children, who were forbidden to play with black dolls. In the absence of their parents, the white child would play with the black doll and flip the doll to the white side upon their parents’ or other disapproving person’s approach. (The author re-painted the black doll’s face.)


In an effort to document one of the Topsy-Turvy theories, I checked several books from my doll- and black memorabilia/Americana reference libraries for information beyond images, description, and value.  Only a handful of authors whose books I own have documented the existence of Topsy-Turvy dolls.  None of the books mention the origin of the Topsy-Turvy concept.

Published in 1993 with updated values in 1995, Myla Perkins includes black and white images and a paragraph description of several Topsy-Turvy dolls on the following pages of Black Dolls An Identification and Value Guide 1820-1991:

  • Page 33 - Germany, 1890's, 11-inch, bisque double headed doll, one side black, one side white, both with open eyes.
  • Page 68 - Circa 1920's [handmade-appearing] 15-inch tall, cloth, one head black, one head white, both with open eyes.
  • Page 74 - 1990, 13-inch cloth, double doll, black on both sides, one side with open eyes, the other with closed eyes, mass produced, manufacturer unnamed.
  • Page 90 - Composition, 8-inch back/white double doll; black head has three tufts of black string inserted into holes in head for hair, circa mid-1930s.
  • Page 95 - W. D. Co., 11-1/2-inch, composition heads and arms, painted features, shared cloth body; one head black, one head white.
  • Page 99 - Unmarked composition heads with painted features, brown cloth body, 13 inches [circa 1930s].

Published in 1995 as a followup to her first book, Myla Perkins includes one color image and several black and white images along with paragraph descriptions of Topsy-Turvy dolls, and two brief statements regarding dolls by Butler Brothers on the following pages of Black Dolls An Identification and Value Guide Book II:

  • Page 9 - Armless, 11-inch, unmarked doll with black/white heads with embossed pressed paper faces, circa 1890s.
  • On page 34, Perkins writes:  " ... in 1895, Butler Brothers advertised double dolls under the category 'Miscellaneous Dolls' as follows:  'No. 718 Double Head Dolls -- Natural glass eyes, two styles of dress, one darkey head and the other a bisque head with pretty baby face and lace cap.  Appropriate dresses, 14 inches, one dozen in box.' Cost was $2.05 per dozen.'"
  • On page 44, Perkins continues:  "In 1914, Butler Brothers (wholesale distributor) advertised a 23" 'Mammy,' cut out and sew doll, and a 17" 'Topsy-turvy.'  The cost was $1.25 per dozen... [description of Mammy provided].  The topsy-turvy doll is not pictured in the ad."
  • Pages 76-81 illustrate a variety of hand-made and commercially-produced cloth Topsy-Turvy dolls with date origins ranging from 1890s-1990s.  The marked, mass-produced dolls are made by Gambina, Horsman, and Junel Novelty.
  • Page 126 - 7-1/2-inch composition black/white heads with painted features, similar to the doll featured on page 90 of Perkins' first book, except the black head does not have holes for hair tufts. 
  • Page 138 - Brazilian with wooden heads, one head is dark brown; the other is a lighter shade of brown.  Undated.
  • Page 350 - Another Topsy-Turvy doll from Brazil, hard plastic heads in one piece hard plastic body, 6 inches; one head is painted brown; the other head is painted black.  Marks (on back of both bodies):  TR (inside triangle) INC A.
Value references are also included in Perkins' books for each doll, but are omitted here as this article strives to explore the true meaning of the doll's concept, which Perkins' books omit.

Patricia Smith's Doll Value's Antique to Modern Tenth Edition (1994) briefly mentions Topsy-Turvy on page 59 as follows:

Topsy-Turvy:  Two-headed doll.  One black, other white. Oil painted:  $700.00.  Printed:  $500.

Dawn E. Reno's Encyclopedia of Black Collectibles A Value and Identification Guide (1996) includes two Topsy-Turvy passages on pages 105 and 110.

On page 105, Reno writes:
Topsy turvy dolls, which originated as early as the Civil War, represented the best of both worlds.  The doll, usually dressed in a long dress that covered her bottom half, would be black on one side and white on the other.  Topsy turvy dolls were commonly made into the 1940s and can be found in rubber, plastic, celluloid, and composition.  There are also some contemporary topsy turvy dolls.

On page 110, Reno continues and reiterates:
Topsy Turvy dolls were often black on one side and white on the other.  Sometimes they were made in the form of nursery rhyme characters, such as Little Red Riding Hood on one end and the grandmother on the other or the plain and fancy Cinderellas.  These dolls met the same need as rag dolls; they were economical toys that could be made out of scraps of material.  The unique feature of the topsy turvey doll was that it was two dolls in one.  Topsies were made before the Civil War and are still being made today.

(During the 1970s, my father would frequent thrift stores and with delight bring home his findings.  One such item was a Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf Topsy-Turvy, a gift for my younger sister.  The doll was tattered.  So without him knowing it, and with my sister's approval, my mother eventually discarded it.)

Don Jensen mentions and illustrates Topsy-Turvy dolls on page 27 and on pages 30-31 in his book, Collector's Guide to Horsman Dolls Identification and Values 1865-1950 (2002).

On page 27, Jensen writes:

Babyland Rag Dolls -- This series of cloth dolls probably was the first series of dolls popularly associated with the Horsman name.  The first Horsman cloth doll that we know of to bear the Baby Land name (later the two words would be joined to form the more familiar Babyland name) appeared in the company's 1893 catalog.  Babyland Rag dolls became a staple in Horsman's product line and remained there well into the 1920s...

...Topsy-Turvy, a two-headed cloth doll.  Turned one way, it was a white doll; turned upside down with its skirt covering that face, it became a black doll.  

On pages 30-31, Jensen illustrates a 12-inch Topsy-Turvy Babyland Rag doll that has two lithographed faces.  One represents Eva; the other is her maid/servant Topsy, characters from Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852).  A 14-inch Bruckner Topsy-Turvy with mask-type faces, also part of Horsman's Babyland Rag series, is illustrated on page 31.  Snapshots of pages 30-31 are shown below.

Topsy-Turvy by Horsman, Eva on one side and Topsy on other, circa 1890s as illustrated in Jensen's Collector's Guide to Horsman Dolls Identification and Values 1865-1950

Horsman's Babyland Rag Topsy-Turvy made by Bruckner circa 1800s, also from Jensen's book on Horsman dolls.

According to Stonegate Antiques' website,

From 1901-1924, Bruckner produced this original, 12" Topsy Turvy doll for Horsman's Babyland Rag Doll line that features Caucasian, "Betty", on one end and African American, "Topsy", on the other. The inspiration for this doll is based on the character of Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic 1852 novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin".

The Bruckner Topsy Turvy doll was advertised in a 1907 Babyland Rag Doll catalog as follows:
"TOPSY-TURVY---What is this?
Looks like just a pretty miss.
But turn her over and you'll find,
She is quite another kind.
First she's White and then she's Black,
Turn her over and turn her back.
Topsy that side--Betty this--
Yet complete, each little Miss."

A brief description and value of Topsy-Turvy dolls is included on pages 67 and 136 of Doll Values Antique to Modern Eighth Edition by Barbara DeFeo and Carol Stover (2004) as follows:

  • Page 67 - Topsy-Turvy - Cloth dolls with two heads, some with black doll under one skirt, which when turned over reveals white doll under other skirt.  [Values are included, but will not be shown here.]
  • Page 136 - Under the category "Multi-Face, Multi-Head Dolls/Cloth" is entered, "Topsy-Turvy:  one black, one white head.  See Cloth section." 

Topsy-Turvy dolls are illustrated, briefly described, and assigned a book value on the noted pages in the following black memorabilia references:

Black Collectibles Mammy and Her Friends (1988), page 92 -- one doll is shown.
Black Collectibles Sold in America by P. J. Gibbs (1996), page 214 -- shows one doll.
Collecting Black Memorabilia A Picture Price Guide by J. P. Thompson (1996 ), pages 78-79 (see image below).
More Black Memorabilia A Handbook & Price Guide 2nd Edition, by Jan Lindenberg (1999), page 135 -- one doll.
Pages 78-79 of Collecting Black Memorabilia... illustrates commercially-produced and handmade early-to-mid 1900s cloth Topsy-Turvy dolls with painted or stitched features.  Two have painted mask faces.

While Topsy-Turvy dolls are referenced in several texts, the true original concept remains a mystery.  I continue to believe the first versions were handmade by African slaves, who were shipped across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, to North and South America, and to other parts of the world that participated in human bondage.   The first versions probably were made of cloth with one doll having a black face and the other a white face.  Early versions most likely had embroidered facial features and/or buttons to create eyes.  Whether these early handmade versions were for the children of slaves or for the children the makers were enslaved to care for is uncertain.  What is certain is the concept originated with ingenious African female slaves. 

Post-slavery, commercially-produced Topsy-Turvy's heads often share the same ethnicity, black.  Eyes can vary from open on both heads or one doll asleep and the other awake.  Modern Topsy-Turvy dolls, handmade or commercially produced for the tourist trade in the Caribbean and elsewhere, as illustrated by my two circa 1980s examples from Jamaica and Barbados in the first two images, are quite possibly spinoffs of those made by African slaves whose slave vessels docked in these regions.

Three additional Topsy-Turvy dolls from my collection are illustrated in the next two images.
One composition and two cloth Topsy-Turvy dolls, circa 1930s, 1980s, and 1940s, respectively; the 1930s doll is like the doll on page 90 of Perkins' 1st book.   (See her unclothed here.)  The smallest doll is featured on page 39 of The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls.  The cloth doll on the far right is the one illustrated previously in before and after images, shared from my book, Black Dolls A Comprehensive Guide...
Hidden underneath:
The same dolls, as shown in the previous image, are flipped over to display the white dolls.
Topsy-Turvy, an ordinary-appearing doll had a hidden agenda; it was cleverly and originally devised to serve an intended, yet, concealed purpose.

After publishing this post, I checked two additional black memorabilia publications:
  • The Art and History of Black Memorabilia by Larry Vincent Buster (2000).  According to his biography, Mr. Buster's master's thesis on black memorabilia was the groundwork for his book.  On pages 129 and 130, he writes, "The world of black dolls is steeped in history and lore, with roots that are long and deep.  Many of the most treasured dolls today have the humblest of origins, fashioned by the hands of anonymous black seamstresses, craftsmen, and other plain folk ...  Among the most unusual and prized folk dolls is the Topsy Turvy doll, which originated in the antebellum South."
  • Black Americana A Personal Collection by Darrell A. Smith (1988) contains two examples of  Topsy-Tuvy dolls circa 1930s and late-1800s, respectively.
Topsy-Turvy has been the subject of poems and doll advertisements.  In the book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein (New York University Press, 2011) the poem, “The Topsy Turvy Doll” glorifies the white doll and in 11 words projects inferiority onto the black doll.

The following screen snapshot of an unknown manufacturer's Topsy-Turvy doll ad is included in Bernstein's book:

Note the time frame of antebellum and postbellum as the original of Topsy-Turvy dolls has been used by more than one researcher.


On August 26, 2019, Mr. Bob Nerbovig shared photos of a Topsy-Turvy doll that his mother purchased during the 1960s.  With his permission, his photos are shared below along with his description of this family heirloom.

The black doll wears a red floral-print dress.

Knots of yarn create her hair.  Her facial features are embroidered.

The white doll wears a green floral-print dress.  She also has embroidered facial features.

Yellow yarn was used for this doll's hair.

Bob described his Topsy-Turvey as follows:  We have a very nice black/white topsy turvy doll. They have heart lips and the same pattern dress, red on one side, green on the other. 

Based on the pictures, Bob's Topsy-Turvy, while purchased during the 1960s, could date back to the 1950s or earlier.  This doll is a nice example of a handmade Topsy-Turvy.  Thank you again, Bob, for sharing the pictures and allowing me to share them here.


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