At first glance, one may not be particulary interested in what appears to be a typical antique ragdoll. Closer inspection, however, reveals an interesting glimpse into the history of American doll making and an aspect of New Paltz History too often over looked.
This homemade doll dates back to mid to late 19th century and once belonged to Gertrude Van Order DuBois. The doll is an African American woman dressed in clothing typical to the period. Her pale pink dress is slightly faded, accented by a once-white apron that is now yellow-tinged. The top of her blouse is accented by lace trim and a “bow” of white string. Her wide-brimmed bonnet sports the same pink and lavendar floral pattern as her skirt. Black woolen hair peaks out from underneath the bonnet, knitted tightly to the bottom of her cap. She is made entirely out of cloth, with a knitted head, sewn on facial features and beads for eyes. The left side of her face has some slight discoloration, likely a product of aging.
There is little information available on Gertrude. The wife of Herman Dubois, she was born in 1874 and died in 1950. The Dubois family and other Huguenot families of New Paltz were slave owners. Louis, one of the founding Dubois family members, purchased two slaves at public auction in Kingston 1674. The 1755 census shows Solomon DuBois as owning seven slaves. It is reasonable to surmise that this doll once belonged to a slave child and eventually fell into the hands of young Gertrude.
The earliest dolls were often crafted from pottery (common in ancient Egypt), baked clay or wood (two mediums used frequently in Ancient Greece). Bone, fur, and wax were also common materials. Dolls in ancient Greece and Rome often had articulated limbs that could be moved around and posed; notably, most modern dolls didn’t have moveable limbs until the 19th century.
Early dolls were often used for educational purposes or as elements in religious and magic rituals. When women married in ancient Greece, they would lovingly dedicate their dolls to the local goddess–a symbolic “rite of passage” into womanhood.
The Industrial Revolution saw a shift from home-made, labors of love playthings to the mass production of dolls in factories. Such dolls were often constructed from porcelain and thus quite expensive, so at home doll-making continued into the early 20th century. Homemade dolls were crafted out of fabric scraps, string, and straw, often crudely rendered due to a lack of materials.
African American dolls, like the one owned by Gertrude Van Order Dubois, have a particularly rich history in American folk art. Cloth rag dolls were originally made by slaves for their children to play with and were not mass-produced until after the Civil War, when their popularity in both America and Europe increased. These factory-made dolls were typically offensive caricatures of African Americans. Porcelain doll makers adopted the practice of painting the heads of white dolls black, resulting in a bizarre looking doll with dark skin and Caucasian features. Such dolls promoted racism against African Americans, including the blackface iconography that became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first mass-produced African American dolls with realistic facial features did not exist until the 1960’s. Thus, if mid to late 19th century African American children wanted a doll that actually looked like them, they would have to make one at home.
Like much of New York, New Paltz tends to downplay the existence of slavery here. Remnants of our town’s past, like Gertrude’s doll, remind us that this area did in fact play a role in slavery–and its traces are often far different than we may anticipate.
“Dolls from the Index of American Design.” National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art: Washington, DC. Web. 23 April 2019.
“Interesting History of Dolls.” History of Dolls. Web. 23 April 2019.
Unkenholz, Tim. “If You Think Dolls Are Creepy Now, Just Wait Til You See Their Origins…” ViralNova. Web. 23 April 2019.
“Dolls and Dollhouses.” Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.: New York. Web. 23 April 2019.