Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mama Dolls

Circa 1940s-1950s Mama Dolls

Whether or not they are mothers, most females are natural-born nurturers.  Beginning in infancy, being cared for and witnessing a mother or guardian care for younger children aids in the development of a child's instinctive desire to nurture.  In young children, this instinct is also developed through role and doll play.  Today's baby dolls and their predecessors, specifically mama dolls, have been used by children to mimic the mothering role.

The vintage picture of Miss Edna Earl Gaston and Friend (the friend being the mama-type doll which was either a studio prop or the young Miss Gaston's personal doll) inspired this post about mama dolls.

Mama dolls became quite popular in America during the 1920s.  The initial mama dolls were made of composition with cloth bodies that contained a voice box which made the sound "ma-ma" when the doll's body was tilted forward or backward.  Their voice boxes, also known as criers, are located either in the front or back of their torsos.  When found today, most mama dolls' voice boxes are mute. 

Mama dolls were made in a variety of sizes as babies and toddlers well into the early 1950s.  Composition, hard plastic, and stuffed latex/Magic Skin were paired with cloth, or a combination of all these materials, to produce the final versions of mama dolls. 

As a child, I remember playing with baby dolls.  While these were not the original mama dolls, they served to develop my nurturing skills through doll play.  I recall making sock dresses for American Character's Tiny Tears (and incurring a skin-incorporated stitch injury to my thigh during one such doll clothes-sewing event).   Pretending to rock Ideal's Thumbelina to sleep after turning the wooden knob in her back, which made her rock on her own, was done to mimic my father's cradling of me in his arms and rocking me from side to side as he sang, "go to sleep little baby... go to sleep little baaaaa-aaaa-by...." 

(Okay, admittedly, men have the ability to nurture, too.)

After my adult interest in modern dolls was nearly exhausted, I began adding vintage black dolls to my collection in the late 1990s/early 2000s.  As a result, I own a few unique examples of black mama dolls that I imagine helped several little girls and big girls before me develop and continue their innate nurturing skills.

On this Mother's Day weekend, I decided to share a few images and brief descriptions of early mama dolls from my personal collection. 
These are the same dolls shown in the first image above.  The flanking dolls are both from the late 1940s-early 1950s.  Their heads are hard plastic with brown sleep eyes.  The arms and legs are stuffed latex.  The larger one is 25 inches.  The other measures 24 inches and is the only one with a working crier.  The 1940s doll in the center measures 29 inches and has a composition head with brown tin eyes, stuffed latex arms and legs, and cloth body.  She came to me professionally restored (repainted face and new wig.)  As I indicated in Black Dolls a Comprehensive Guide...    
Because of some lighter brown-to-tan areas in the creases of the doll’s legs and feet and the uneven darkening of the Magic Skin limbs, it is possible that this doll was originally a white Magic Skin doll whose limbs darkened and the face and body later painted/replaced to match the darkened limbs.

(The Magic Skin material used on all dolls usually darkens with age; this includes white dolls which can transform from their original pink/white color to various shades of brown to black.)

26-inch composition girl and 23-inch (rare) composition boy, circa 1940s and 1930s.  Based on the boy's metal eyes, he is the older of the two.  Both have voice boxes which can be felt in the front (the girl) and the back (the boy) of their cloth torsos.  These dolls are attributed to W. B. Abbott's line of Sun Tan dolls.   A close-up of this pair follows:

Close-up of composition mama dolls, described above 
Not all mama dolls were babies.  These two are nice examples of toddler dolls that have ma-ma voice boxes.  They are 21-1/2 and 27-inches tall, respectively, circa 1940s-1950s.  Both dolls have hard plastic heads and breast plates, cloth bodies, and composition arms and legs.  Due to their mixed media construct, these dolls are also considered transitional dolls.  As doll media transitioned from one popular material to the next, innovative medium, some doll makers  incorporated the new with the old, combining previous parts and materials until these were exhausted.
Transitional mama dolls, close-up; the doll on the right is missing something.  Can you tell what she's missing?

Happy Mother's Day to mothers, grandmothers, and doll lovers whose dolls serve as inanimate children.

Related Links:
Mama Dolls
Oh Such Eyes
Transitional Doll Clean-up (and answer to question posed above)

A white Magic Skin doll's restoration


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  1. Hello from Spain: Happy Mother's Day. I really like your collection of antique babies. I love collecting baby dolls. Also I have several. The trouble is that kids today prefer the new technologies that the dolls. A pity. In my country, Mother's Day is celebrated the first Sunday of May. As we celebrate. It is a day very familiar. Enjoy this day. Keep in touch

  2. Excellent post! Wishing you a Blessed and Happy "Mamma's" Day!


  3. Happy Mother's Day to you and your mom. Please give her a hug from me. Another informative post. I didn't know they were referred to as mama dolls. They are all quite nice.

  4. Thanks for commenting ladies!

    Marta - I agree; most children prefer high tech toys and gadgets today. Very few are interested in baby dolls.

    Vanessa - the pen was a huge hit! More to follow.


  5. Happy Mother's Day to you and all your dollies.

  6. Thanks for the history of mama dolls and the images of antique black mama dolls. Happy Mother's Day!


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