Paper dolls have existed as long as there have been paper and creative people to apply images to it. In France in the mid-1700s, “pantins” were all the rage in high society and royal courts. This jointed jumping-jack figure, a cross between puppet and paper doll, was made to satirize nobility.
Paper dolls as we know them first appeared in the latter half of the 18th century. A set of rare hand-painted figures dated late in the 1780s can be found in the Winterthur Museum of Winterthur, Delaware. It shows coiffures and headdresses for sale at the shop of Denis-Antoine on Rue St. Jacques, Paris. In 1791, a London advertisement proclaimed a new invention called the “English Doll.” It was a young female figure with a wardrobe of underclothes, headdresses, corset and six complete outfits. At about three shillings for a complete doll and wardrobe–plus an envelope to store her in–dressmakers could afford to own several sets and distribute these dolls among their favorite customers. Dolls like these were also sold in Germany and France.
In 1810, the London firm of S. & J. Fuller & Company printed the first commercially popular paper doll, Little Fanny, with a 15-page book that included seven figures and five hats. Fanny’s head & neck were separate, and fitted into various outfits as the moral tale, The History of Little Fanny: Exemplified in a Series of Figures, was told. At five to eight shillings for each book, their primary audience included wealthy families.
The success of Little Fanny was followed two years later in America, when J. Belcher printed a paper doll with a similar moral tale, The History and Adventures of Little Henry. Within ten years, boxed sets of paper dolls were popular playthings for children in Europe and America.
McLoughlin Brothers, founded in 1828, became the largest manufacturer of paper dolls in the United States, making their dolls fairly easy to find today. They printed their paper dolls from wood blocks engraved in the same way as metal plates. Some of the most popular dolls, selling for five and ten cents a set, were Dottie Dimple, Lottie Love and Jenney June. The largest prodlicer of paper dolls and children’s books, McLoughlin Brothers was sold to Milton Bradley in 1920.
A smaller publishing company, Peter G. Thompson, published paper dolls in the 1880s. Similar to the McLoughlin style, some of their titles were Pansy Blossom, Jessie Jingle, Lillie Lane, Bessie Bright and Nellie Bly, selling for eight to fifteen cents per set. Also in the 1880s, Dennison Manufacturing Company added crepe paper to their line, starting a trend that lasted for about forty years. Crepe paper added dimension to the costumes of paper dolls and provided countless hours of fun for children at home and in schools.
The first celebrity paper doll to be produced was a doll portraying the renowned ballerina Marie Taglioni, published in the 1830s. In 1840, a boxed set was done of another ballerina, Fanny Elssler, as well as of Queen Victoria. From the 1870s to the 1890s, European manufacturers produced beautifully lithographed full-color paper dolls. They often represented royalty and famous theater personalities, including the German Royal Family, the House of Windsor, and actresses Ellen Terry, Lily Langtry and Lillian Russell. In the 1890s, Frederick A. Stokes and Company published several sets of paper dolls including likenesses of European royalty and America’s own Martha Washington.
The 1900s saw an explosion of paper dolls in many lady’s and children’s magazines. Lettie Lane, painted by Sheila Young, made her entrance in Ladies’ Home Journal in October 1908 and ran until July 1915. The pages included Lettie, her friends, her family, their servants and accompanying stories. The Lane family became well-known and loved all across America. Ladies’ Home Journal continued printing paper dolls through 1948 by a variety of artists including Lucy Fitch Perkins and Gertrude Kay.
The 1930s through the 1950s can perhaps claim the title “Golden Age of Paper Dolls,” as their popularity during those years has never been equaled. During the Great Depression, paper toys could be afforded by all. Despite the product shortages of World War 11, paper dolls were still manufactured, though on lesser-quality papers. Parents of the 1950s revered the image of little girls lovingly playing with paper dolls, just as their mothers and grandmothers had before them.
Fashion Plates and Paperdolls
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the fashion plate was one of the most important resources for “matters of style”. Although this steel-engraved or lithographed print was originally distributed alone or included as a supplement in periodicals, it has come to be viewed as a form of decorative art on its own. Today, it also serves as a valuable primary source for the study of historic costume.
Two Parisian printsellers, Jacques Esnauts and Michel Rapilly, are credited with the creation of colored prints depicting contemporary fashion for men and women in 1788. Their plates appeared in the publication La Galerie des Modes, along with portraits of French court members and detailed images of theatrical costumes. In 1787, La Galerie des Modes ceased production, and in 1794 Nicolaus Wilhelm von Heidelhoff, a Paris-trained engraver, began production of the Gallery of Fashion in London. His exquisitely hand-tinted fashion plates were often metallic-embellished. By the turn of the century, numerous French, English, and German periodicals also included fashion plates.
Fashion prints also spawned creativity with scissors and bits of paper and fabric. In Jane Austen in Style, a print is shown from Fanny Austen Knight’s (Jane Austen’s niece) pocket book of 1805. The caption accompanying them tells how Fanny cut out the fashions on the page and placed swatches of silk and muslin behind the engravings so that her figures display not only the latest fashionable gowns, but also the latest fabrics.
In America, women eagerly sought information on the latest Paris fashions from monthly publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and La Belle Assemblée. From the inception of Louis B. Godey’s magazine in Philadelphia in 1830, until the late 1860s, Godey’s Lady’s Book was considered an institution and a leading authority on fashion. Initially focused on sentimental short stories from English publications, it occasionally added reproduced French and English fashion plates.
Sarah Josepha Hale, an untrained, penniless widow with five children, was hired as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1837. A devout feminist and activist, Mrs. Hale’s many accomplishments included helping to organize Vassar, the first women’s college, and spurring the movement to proclaim Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Her influence upon Godey’s Lady’s Book was seen almost immediately, as she strove to shape it into a work of American “miscellany which although devoted to general literature” was “more expressly designed to mark the progress of female improvement”. In her column, Editor’s Table, she spear-headed women’s causes and spoke out against social injustice.
Mrs. Hale hired local artists to redraw fashions from European publications, although the designs were actually simplified Philadelphia or New York variations, as few American women could afford French gowns until the late 1860s. Godey’s hand-colored plates included vague descriptions of fabrics, and the painted colors sometimes differed from those described in the text.
In November 1859, Godey’s Lady’s Book was the first magazine to print a paper doll in black and white followed by a page of costumes for children to color. This was the only paper doll Godey’s ever published, but it set the trend that many women’s magazines followed in years to come.
Interest in Godey’s Lady’s Book began to wane after the Civil War when industrialization brought an increase in urbanization and disposable income. Fashionable women began to seek the more sophisticated look presented in other periodicals, such as Graham’s and Peterson’s. In 1877, Godey sold his publication, and, despite new owners and relocation to New York, the magazine failed to regain its former popularity.
To print your own Regency Era Paperdolls, visit The Gallery of Dolls where you will find all or your favorite Jane Austen Heros and Heroines as well as the author, herself!
Paper Doll History was written by Judy Johnson with excerpts from . Ms Johnson is a founding member of the Original Paper Doll Artists Guild, writes for several national magazines and is a paper doll artist whose books have been published by Dover and B. Shackman. She is also the primary artist for Magicloth Paper Dolls. Visit her website, Papergoodies, for more information and a sample of her work.
The History of Fashion Plates was written by JoAnn Steere and reprinted from the URI Historic Textile and Costume Collection. Her references include:
Blum, Stella, ed. Fashions and Costumes from Godey’s Lady’s Book.
New York: Dover Publications, 1985.
Payne, Blanche et al. The History of Costume, 2nd ed.
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
Taylor, Lisa. Fashion Plates in the Collection of the Cooper-HewittMuseum.
New York: Smithsonian Institution, 1982.