On View presents images from noteworthy exhibitions
 

AFTER HER BRAVE AND HARROWING ESCAPE from enslavement, Harriet Jacobs was employed in New York by Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867), a white, well-paid writer and magazine editor who worked with Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Jacobs, who titled her 1861 autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” made Black dolls wearing cotton dresses for Willis’s three daughters. Leo Moss, a handyman in Macon, Ga., fashioned white commercially produced dolls into Black dolls, using layers of papier-mache and boot dye to change their facial features, hair, and skin to make them look like the people in his family and community.

More than 200 objects and Black dolls dating from 1850 to 1940 are on display at the New-York Historical Society, including dolls by Jacobs and Moss. Nearly all of the handmade, cloth dolls featured in the exhibition were crafted by African American women for their own children or white children in their charge. The Black dolls offer a unique, historic view of race, representation, and play, insights that are explored throughout the show in sections such as Slavery and Abolition, Growing Up with Jim Crow, The Art and Craft of Dollmaking, Child’s Play, and Race Play.

The Jacobs dolls come from an unnamed private collection and 110 dolls are drawn from the private collection of Deborah Neff, whose expansive holdings, including examples by Moss, were the focus of a traveling exhibition a few years ago. In addition to antique dolls, the current presentation features a selection of commercially produced 20th-century dolls, period photographs that provide context and documentation of the dolls, courtesy of Neff, as well as related ephemera from the New-York Historical Society and other sources. CT

 

“Black Dolls” is on view at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library in New York, N.Y., from Feb. 25-June 5, 2022

FIND MORE about the exhibition

 


LEO MOSS (d. 1936), Doll with Tears, Macon, Ga. circa 1922 (manufactured body, cotton, papier-mâché, glass), “Mabel Lincoln 1922” handwritten on label sewn to torso. | Collection of Deborah Neff, Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography

 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


Dominique Jean-Louis, associate curator at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, provides insights about the history that can be gleaned from the more than 100 dolls on view in the “Black Dolls” exhibition she co-curated. | Video by New-York Historical Society

 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


HARRIET JACOBS (1813-1897), Dolls Made for the Willis Family Children, circa 1850-60 (mixed fabrics, metal). | Private Collection, Photo by Glenn Castellano

 
    Harriet Jacobs is best known for her harrowing account of the human degradation and physical violence of slavery and her dramatic escape to freedom. After reaching New York City in 1842, Jacobs found work caring for the children of writer Nathaniel Parker Willis. Jacobs crafted these dolls for the Willis daughters, Imogen, Lillian, and Edith, who passed them down in the family for generations.
 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


Doll in Feed Sack Dress, 1900-25, Possibly Indiana (mixed fabrics, paint). | Deborah Neff Collection, Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography

 
    Whether by necessity or by habit, doll makers often took a frugal approach to their craft. Needlewomen recycled outgrown clothes, worn socks, threadbare linens, or scraps of dress fabric and gave them new life as elegant outfits or doll components. A resourceful doll maker made this doll’s dress from a seed sack, positioning the Farm Bureau Co-op logo to evoke an apron.
 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


Doll in Gentleman’s Top Coat, 1860-70, Milton, Mass. (mixed fabrics, leather, brass, glass). | Deborah Neff Collection, Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography

 
    A handwritten note accompanying this doll states that it was stitched by a member of the Badger family of Milton, Massachusetts, and sold to support Union soldiers during the Civil War. This dignified gentleman defies racist stereotypes, perhaps a goal of doll makers for antislavery and Civil War era fundraising fairs. Some abolitionist families encouraged their children to play with dolls like this to help instill humanitarian values.
 


GORDON PARKS (1912-2006), Untitled (Doll Test),” Harlem, N.Y., 1947. | © The Gordon Parks Foundation, Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation

 
    In 1954, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall argued against racially segregated schools before the Supreme Court. He asked Black sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark to submit testimony for Brown v. Board of Education. The Clarks used dolls identical except for skin color and asked children to compare them: “Which is the doll that looks like you?” “Which is the good doll?” They found that Black children preferred the white doll. Marshall argued that the Clarks’ research proved racial segregation harmed Black children and produced feelings of inferiority. The Supreme Court cited the test as particularly influential in their decision.
 


Pair of Dolls with Corduroy Knickers, circa 1895-1915, Possibly New Hampshire (mixed fabrics, leather, animal fur, porcelain). | Deborah Neff Collection, Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography

 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


Unidentified photographer, Woman and Children with Black Cloth Dolls, 1942 (gelatin silver print). | Deborah Neff Collection

 
    Surviving photographs of Black children with Black dolls are quite rare. The images invite us to consider the experience of childhood during a period when the nation was (legally) divided by color lines and ponder how children navigated their racial identity.
 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


CYNTHIA WALKER HILL (1771-1848), Doll Representing an Enslaved Man, circa 1840-48 (cotton, silk, glass, wire, pearl). | New Bedford Whaling Museum, Gift of Mrs. M. Motley Sargeant, 1953.1.2

 
    The horrors of slavery are palpable in this doll, a fugitive from slavery wearing a three-pronged slave collar around his neck. The doll was made by Cynthia Hill, a fervent abolitionist from Providence, Rhode Island. A hotbed of abolitionist activity, Providence was one of many New England towns that formed antislavery societies in the 1830s.
 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


Topsy-Turvy Doll, 1890-1905 (mixed fabrics, paint). | New-York Historical Society, Gift of Katharine Prentis Murphy, 1961.30. Photo by Glenn Castellano

 
    Two dolls, one white, one black, are conjoined at the waist. A shared skirt flips over the head of one doll, concealing it to reveal the face of the other. So-called topsy-turvy dolls invite active play, with the doll and the concept of race itself. But this simple toy carries complex meaning. Although topsy-turvy dolls were popular among children at the turn of the 20th century and later, questions remain about their intended purpose.
 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


Doll in Blue Skirt, 1890-1900 (mixed fabrics, metal). | Deborah Neff Collection, Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography

 
    Dolls don’t often survive with their original clothing. Outfits (and bodies) frequently endured zealous affection, rough play, and wardrobe updates. Certain details—the shape of a dress sleeve, the cut of a man’s coat, the style of a boy’s trousers—can offer clues for dating a doll’s costume. This doll wears its original outfit, including an umbrella skirt, a style popular during the 1890s.
 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


Doll with Apron, Late 19th century (mixed fabrics, mother of pearl, beads). | Deborah Neff Collection, Photo by Ellen McDermott Photography

 


Newspaper advertisement: “Pick Out Your Great Big Beautiful Doll,” Nashville Globe, October 17, 1913. | Courtesy New York Historical Society

 
    In the early 20th century, many commercially-available Black dolls reflected derogatory stereotypes. The National Negro Doll Company became the first American firm to retail Black dolls with a positive image in 1908. Founder Richard Henry Boyd first sold imported dolls, but by 1911 he began manufacturing them, promoted with the slogan “Negro Dolls for Negro Children.”
 


Pleasant Company/American Girl, Addy Walker doll, circa 1993 (plastic, mixed fabrics). | New-York Historical Society, Gift of Nicole Wagner & Wagner Family, 2019.32. Photo by Glenn Castellano

 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 


Installation view of “Black Dolls,” New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, New York, N.Y. (Feb. 25-June 5, 2022). | Courtesy New-York Historical Society

 

BOOKSHELF
Two fully illustrated volumes document Deborah Neff’s Black doll collection. “Black Dolls” was published to coincide with the Mingei International Museum show in San Diego, Calif., in 2015. Edited by antique dealer Frank Maresca, the volume includes essays by Margo Jefferson, Lyle Rexer, and artist Faith Ringgold. Accompanying the Paris show in 2018, “Black Dolls: The Deborah Neff Collection,” includes contributions by Deborah Willis, Patricia Williams, Robin Bernstein, Madelyn Shaw, Helene Joubert, in addition to an excerpt from a late 1970s oral history interview with doll maker Nellie Mae Roe (1900-1982). The writings in the book are published in both French and English. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was first published in 1861. Also consider, “Black Dolls 1820-1991: An Identification and Value Guide” by Myla Perkins.

 

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