Black dolls at the New York Historical Society


Upside Down Doll, 1890-1905. Mixed fabrics, paint. New York Historical Society, gift of Katharine Prentis Murphy.
—Photo by Glenn Castellano

By Karla Klein Albertson

NEW YORK CITY – People often say that when something is clear, it’s “there, black and white.” “Black Dolls,” an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society through June 5, explores how that statement can apply even to evidence from the innocent world of children’s play. Exhibits range from early handmade dolls created by African American women for their own children to 20th century commercial toys designed for a growing market of black consumers who wanted representative toys.

Visitors entering the gallery read: “Expressions of resilience and creativity, of perseverance and pride, of love and longing: the black handmade dolls that populate this exhibition have a lot to say. Sewn largely by black women for their own children or white youths in their care, the dolls were ingeniously constructed from available materials. Their faded clothes, torn bodies, and miscellaneous repairs evoke vigorous play and lost conversations, and conjure up images of children cuddling, pampering, and mistreating them. Made in the USA between the 1850s and 1940s, these dolls navigated through a tumultuous period in American history marked by slavery, legalized segregation, and entrenched racism. These works are silent on their specific stories, but each point and sample was a deliberate choice. Makers, mostly unknown to us, have created toys that express their inner lives and intangible feelings while challenging pervasive stereotypes.

Dolls of this type, which have survived without written documentation, are part of a long archaeological history of parental affection, where mothers and fathers carved, modeled or sewed toys for their children in the image of their own. people. They are found in excavations dating back to prehistoric times. As societies became more socially and racially stratified, professional doll makers produced upper-class dolls for the wealthy, while those with less wealth continued to make do with homemade models. Whether in ancient Rome or earlier centuries in America, the mechanism has continued into the modern commercial era of super doll diversity.

The New York exhibit powerfully illustrates its case with more than 200 objects, including 110 handmade dolls and period photographs by renowned collector Deborah Neff, as well as 20th-century commercial dolls and related exhibits and ephemera from the New York Historical Society and other collections. . The exhibition was organized by Margi Hofer, vice-president and director of the museum, and associate curator Dominique Jean-Louis.

Domestic scene by JC Patton, Indianapolis, Ind., circa 1915. Gelatin silver print.  Deborah Neff collection.  —Photo by Ellen McDermott

Domestic scene by JC Patton, Indianapolis, Ind., circa 1915. Gelatin silver print. Deborah Neff collection.
—Photo by Ellen McDermott

In a conversation with Weekly Antiques and Arts, Jean-Louis spoke about the organizational context: “We started work on this exhibition in the spring of 2019, so it’s been quite a while. We have done as much research as possible and contacted people who can help us think about the range of types of dolls featured in this exhibit. We definitely started by immersing ourselves in the vast body of research, and then working from there to help people ask the right questions. And now that everything is set up, I see that this exhibition perhaps raises more questions than it answers.

“Everyone will bring their point of view. Some people will look at these dolls and find nothing but charm and affection in them; others will see something completely different. It’s not up to us to say what the right perspective is but to provide a specific story, to provide specific examples of the visual culture of the time. People may look at them for the first time in a different way, like an artifact or an archive of things that were sometimes subjugated at the margins.

The section on “The Art and Craft of Doll Making” shows the dazzling creativity of family and friends working with the materials at hand to create a toy with personality for a favorite child. As with quilts, we often don’t have a name for the artist, only the surviving work. The black dolls’ costumes range from everyday work clothes to elegant clothes worn by a gentleman in a frock coat, 1860-1870, from Milton, Mass., part of the pieces in the Deborah Neff collection.

Jean-Louis highlighted a favorite exhibit where we can put a name and a story to the artifacts: “I think one of the standout moments of the exhibit are the three handcrafted dolls by Harriet Jacobs (1813 -1897), who, of course, is renowned for her memoirs – Incidents in the life of a slave – which recounts his traumatic experience of slavery. The volume had been published in 1861. A most unusual fact was that the family who owned it had taught it to read and write as well as to sew.

The curator continued: “She was also a doll maker. When she escaped slavery and started working for a family in New England, she made dolls for the children that remained in the family for generations. What’s so remarkable about this to me is that we’ve posted them right next to Harriet Jacobs’ book. It’s very rare that we have a woman who lived through slavery, who can read and write, who can speak in her own words about her experiences – but then we have these dolls. If she hadn’t learned to read and write, if she had never been able to publish her book, maybe that’s all that’s left of her.

Dolls made for the Willis family by Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), circa 1850-60.  Mixed fabrics, metal.  Private collection.  —Photo by Glenn Castellano

Dolls made for the Willis family by Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), circa 1850-60. Mixed fabrics, metal. Private collection. —Photo by Glenn Castellano

“It’s only three dolls, but there are over 100 in the exhibit and each of these dolls was made by someone, someone who has a life story, who may have had a story that could have changed the world the way Harriet Jacobs did.. This is a case where dolls were survivors, they were saved, they were heirlooms to be preserved. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of dolls and makers of dolls, we don’t have as much of their life story as we would like.

In the section titled ‘Race Play’, visitors are confronted with a disturbing selection of upside-down dolls, which – with a flip of the skirt – change from a white to a black torso. Define a clear black and white problem. The wall text quotes WEB DuBois’ statement in The souls of black people (1903) “that the problem of the twentieth century is the color line problem.”

These cloth dolls began to appear in the late 19th century and could still be found by tourists at Southern souvenir stands until the mid-20th century. Children were brought in to literally play with a distinct line of color – were the upside-down women friends or adversaries? They could never escape their bond. “These kinds of questions have always been part of national conversations about these dolls,” Jean-Louis said. “The color line is not something fluid, it’s a hard line between black and white.”

The early decades of the 20th century brought changes in the civil rights movements that had an effect that even reached the fantasy world of doll play. The National Negro Doll Company, founded in 1908 by Richard Henry Boyd, began making black dolls with a positive image, and another business was started in Harlem by businesswomen Evelyn Berry and Victoria Ross.

“Girl with stroller” by an unidentified photographer, Boston, 1930-40. Gelatin silver print. Deborah Neff collection.
—Photo by Ellen McDermott

The NAACP had been founded in 1909, and doll companies supported it, according to the curator: “There is a close relationship between the beginnings of the black press and national civil rights organizations, and the first black doll makers. Personal decisions about what to do with your money and who cared for your children were also political decisions. It’s not just a doll, it’s a broader symbol of social mobility. The latest modern choice exhibits available for lifelike black dolls with authentic accessories show the completion of the journey.

“Every time I walk through the gallery, I stop there and have a moment of gratitude for having the chance to commune with this story,” Jean-Louis said in conclusion.

“One of the things the exhibition does is to encourage us to look at these objects from the domestic sphere as documents of history. The objects we surround ourselves with – that we make, that we bring imagination to the real world – are documents of history that deserve close study, celebration and appreciation, as much as a handwritten letter from Thomas Jefferson . Another important consideration is to think about childhood and how we receive messages as children who stay with us. This exhibition is aimed at all those who are children or who have already been children, that is to say, everyone.

Additional bibliography:

“Black Dolls: the Deborah Neff Collection” was a 2018 exhibition at La Maison Rouge in Paris, which received international press attention, including a splash in vogue. The catalog in French and English includes an introduction by Nora Philippe, an interview with Neff about her collection, and related essays by contributors. In addition, a rare earlier volume – Black Dolls: Unique African American Dolls, 1850-1930 from the Deborah Neff Collection (2015) edited by Frank Maresca – was published as part of an exhibition at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, CA. Information about the acquisition of these two volumes can be found on the New-York Historical Society’s online store and from online booksellers.

The New York Historical Society Museum & Library is located at 170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street). For more information, or 212-873-3400.


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