All-Bisque Immobiles and Candystore Dolls
Buying Tips * Disclaimer * Sentimental Favorites * Dolls in Literature
When I was in junior high, I bought a bisque penny doll at an antique mall in San Angelo, for $5.00. Though I identified her in my mind with the dolls who acted as bridesmaids in Carol Ryrie Brink's Two Are Better than One, the only things I really knew about her was that her hairstyle proclaimed her to be from the twenties or early thirties, and that she had "Japan" incised on her back. I named her Marcy. (Yes, I name my dolls. Get over it!) Many years later, I helped some friends of ours clean out a garage that lay at the bottom of a slope in a flood plain. It was icky, nasty work, during which we turned up a 5" tall bisque doll with a marked resemblance to Marcy. I claimed her as my reward for helping with job, and wondered if the two dolls bore some relationship to each other, perhaps being made in the same factory. I started paying attention, and soon found that there are any number of "Marcy-type" dolls, small all-bisques with recognizable kinship. If they happen to be inscribed "Germany," they are extraordinarily expensive. If they happen to be marked "Japan," they are extraordinarily cheap. Even I can afford them. My five-incher (Patsy) is about as tall as these dolls get, and many are only an inch and three-quarters high. A few are even tinier than that! Even I can find room for them. Suddenly, I realized, I had a doll collection waiting to happen.
I cannot too enthusiastically recommend Nippon Dolls & Playthings by Joan F. Van Patten and Linda Lau, Collector Books, 2001. Color pictures, history, advice on dressing and mending, how to tell a fake, dolls in the context of a changing society - it's all here! Though focusing on the "Nippon" era (1891-1921, between the time that American import laws started requiring a country of origin stamp, and the time that they decided the English word "Japan" needed to be used instead of the Japanese word "Nippon"), there is plenty here for general collectors. In addition to "my" bisques, they cover celluloid, china, and composition dolls and other toys. If you're interested in this stuff at all, this book is essential. (This is not a paid endorsement. I just got the book last night - February 2001 - and I'm psyched.) For a sample, read the short article at the Collector Books site.
The August 2000 issue of Doll Reader Magazine had an article on Morimura Bros. by Linda Lau. Buy the issue while you have a chance if these dolls interest you. I am informed that the April issue of Doll World will have another Lau article on Nippon dolls, so check it out.
I have only two other sources of any size for "my dolls." Patricia Smith's Album of All Bisque Dolls: Identification and Value Guide, 1992, also from Collector's Books, may still be accessible through antique stores. It gives pride of place to the larger all-bisques and especially to German dolls, and is light on text, but has the advantage of numerous color plates showing a wide range (though by no means a full range!) of the doll types available.
All-Bisque and Half-Bisque Dolls, by Genevieve Angione, 1969, is a much fuller and more useful textually. If you can find a copy, you need it; though Angione is hard on my Japanese bisques. In her descriptions of them, phrases such as "dreadful little specimen," "rather worthless," "fair for such Japanese dolls," "such junk," etc. recur continually. I will not dispute that the Japanese dolls are not overall as well-made as the German dolls, but I was taken aback by Angione's wholesale condemnation of the industry. A reading of the whole book, however, makes the problem clear: Angione grew up playing with the German-made dolls (her dolls), and regarded the Japanese product as cheap knock-offs horning in on their territory. This is a sign of emotional involvement with her subject and I am not inclined to condemn it. Her prejudice is sufficiently strong that she will ignore evidence that contradicts her own judgement, as for example when she assigns an unmarked doll to German makers even though it's skin tone is buff (normally a sign of Japanese manufacture) solely because she believes it to be too well-made to be Japanese. If we bear this particular prejudice in mind, the book is a useful, even essential, guide to the full range of bisque dolls, and almost everything I know about these dolls is derived from it.
The much-admired late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century dolls of Jumeau, Kestner, and others are primarily made of bisque, but they aren't the ones we're talking about here. These gorgeous dolls were not cheap when they were originally bought for fortunate little girls, but these days they are astronomically priced, and they are, by my standards, huge. Like many middle and lower class little girls of yore, I only have money and space for the cheap stuff.
And cheap they were! Made by the same ceramic factories that made dishes and bigger dolls, these little things were churned out and sold literally by the gross to candy stores, who stocked them alongside their chocolate drops and licorice whips, enticing in little girls with small change. Although there's now some confusion about which dolls actually cost what, it's generally agreed that girls referred to them according to cost, with the smallest and most common ones being "penny dolls," larger ones "nickel dolls," and the biggest of all (presumably like my 5-inch "Patsy") "quarter dolls." These dolls might be the only ones for sale in a small town, and were certainly the only ones a child would be able to afford on her own. (The chapters describing her own experiences with candystore dolls are easily the most charming portions of Angione's book.)
Both candy and dolls were shipped primarily from Central Europe -- specifically, from Germany -- during the last decades of the previous century, and the first decade and a half of the present. The advent of the Great War (as WWI was called then) put a crimp in things. Even before the United States entered the War, trade in trivialities like candy and dolls had necessarily been disrupted. After 1917, it was unthinkable to stock anything manufactured by "the Hun!" Yet cheap bisque dolls were an important part of the candystore's stock-in-trade. The candystores needed a new supplier. Japanese ceramic manufacturers needed new international markets. The result, though not inevitable, was not surprising.
Bisque dolls were an early example of the Japanese skill at creating "cheap knock-offs" market, for which they were famous until their technology caught up to and passed the rest of the world's. The original Japanese candystore dolls were made from the same molds as those used by the Germans, but they cut costs and time by using cheaper materials and often by skipping steps -- omitting the extra firing after the doll was painted, for example, so that surviving dolls have often lost much of their paint. Many dolls are not painted at all on the back, only on the front, which looks peculiar, and few, even the fully-painted ones, are painted as carefully and skillfully as the German ones.
However, once they got the hang of it, the Japanese companies, notably Morimura Brothers, produced a variety of attractive and original dolls. In the post-war years, the candystore and toy businesses changed, and the doll manufacturers changed with them. Dolls began to be marketed in ways more familiar to us moderns, in toy and dime stores, with various accessories and marketing gimmicks. Though boxes and advertising for bisques are rare, I have one, "Jeanie Darling," who comes with her own "sewing outfit," and themed sets of dolls, licensed images, and other marketing ploys were employed. The Japanese competed just as they would later compete in the plastic toy industry, by doing similar things a little less well, a little faster, and a little cheaper. This went on until the bisque toy doll industry died out after the Second World War. Angione places the demise of this industry squarely at the Japanese's door; but the advent of cheap plastic seems to me a more likely culprit.
Despite mass-production and the re-use of molds, variety was the spice of the candystore doll industry. No little girl would waste her penny on a doll she already had! Manufacturers recognized this by
varying sizes. Dolls ranged from as small as a half-inch to as tall as six inches.
varying clothing. Dolls came nude and ready to be dressed by amateur seamstresses; nude except for socks, shoes, and molded hair ribbon or bonnet; and fully dressed in molded or crepe-paper clothing of various sorts.
varying sex and age. Most bisques, like most dolls, are little girls, but boys can be found without great effort. About a third of my own dolls are boys. Baby dolls are not common, but can be found -- I have three, two of them black. Grownup "flapper" dolls were made in the '20's, but I have yet to see one. Bisque bride-and-groom sets can be found if you set your mind to it. Some of these may have been designed as wedding-cake toppers; but my two bridal pairs seem tall and heavy for the job, and were probably intended to be played with.
varying props. Some came empty handed, while others carried objects of infinite variety -- books, balls, flowers, buckets, whatever suited the mold-maker's mood. Others might boast a pet, strung on a leash.
varying mobility and position The smallest dolls were usually immobile with arms and legs molded close to the body. Larger ones might have wire-strung joints at the shoulders, or at the hips and shoulders both. Two novelty movements that drive the price up today are heads that are wired to move, and bodies balanced to rock on pedestal-type legs. The last two types are called "nodders" and "swayers," respectively, and are more expensive than either immobiles or dolls with mere jointed arms and legs.
varying hairstyle. Most all-bisques have molded and painted hair, but some came with real-hair wigs.
varying race. Because they were made for the American middle-class market, most dolls were white with blond hair and blue eyes, but a small number of black dolls were also made by German and Japanese manufacturers, sometimes with tufts of thread supplementing the painted hairstyles. The most famous (and expensive to collect) Japanese doll was the Morimura Brothers "Queue San" baby, a Chinese boy who could be had kneeling or standing. Probably the most common consciously ethnic type is the Dutch girl (more rarely, boy), for which there was a considerable vogue in the '10's and '20's. I myself own four Dutch girls, and could easily have more if I wanted them. American Indians were also produced, without much concern for authenticity. If I interpret what I see around the San Antonio antique stores correctly, there was at one time a set of one squaw, one brave in full war bonnet, and one cowboy, available in a range of sizes and variously tacky colors, possibly designed as souvenirs for Western gift shops.
using licensed properties. After the advent of comic strips and animated cartoons, cartoon characters began to be produced in bisque, and these command high prices, even when in poor condition. Disney (Snow White, the Three Little Pigs), Gasoline Alley, Little Annie Rooney, and the Gumps are some which I have seen for myself, in Japanese and German versions, and could not afford.
The most common type of Japanese all-bisque around here, though named after a cartoon character, represents no licensed character and is readily available in a bewildering range of size and quality. Once you have seen a few "boop types," named for their resemblance to Betty Boop, you will know them whenever you encounter them, but they are not easy to describe reliably. They are almost invariably blonde (but I have a brunette), with molded curly bobbed hair, without molded clothing, and almost always shoulder-jointed only. It's the mouth and their flirtatious painted eyes that cry "boop" to aficionados. Although neither my Marcy nor my Patsy is a "classic boop," it was their family resemblance to this type that alerted me to their relationship to each other and to the other bisque dolls in the store. No collection of all-bisques is complete without a boop, but shop around for the right one at the right price -- you'll have plenty to choose from! I myself have, um, five and counting, plus the dolls that are almost, but not quite, of this type.
Clear as mud? Here's a picture of a classic boop someone was kind enough to send me and let me put up. Note the big flirty eyes, the rosebud mouth, the tilted head, the curly blonde bob. The eyelashes are often overdone in boops, but these are just right, and the single-stroke eyebrows are perfectly placed and executed. The pleated crepe paper dress, though in unusually good condition, is a typical home-made outfit. Crepe paper was cheap, colorful, and easy to work with in small sizes, a good material for juvenile doll makers. Another common material is crochet; or elaborate and impressive results can be obtained with ribbon or silk thread. Some of these outfits may possibly be original, but dolls in those days were most often sold nude originally, so little girls could have the fun of designing and making their outfits.
E-bay has dolls like this regularly. E-bay is populated by a few of the same sorts of dealers you find in an antique mall, and by any number of people trying to clear out their attics who have no idea what they have, and are likely to call anything they don't recognized "rare." They are also likely to make elementary mistakes, like confusing composition and bisque. When you do your search, put in the most general terms you can - "bisque Japan doll" for example - and see what you come up with. It is better to ask questions before you place a bid, and provision is made for this. Bookmark the auctions you are interested in, but do not bid until shortly before the end of the auction. Then submit one bid only, your maximum. The auction software will bid against other people's similarly-placed maximum bids in the smallest allowed increments. If you bid $50, and another bidder has already bid $75, the "top bid" number will climb rapidly until it hits $51.50, at which point you have been outbid. This helps to keep prices down, and makes it fairly easy to avoid auction fever.
Never pay more for a doll than she is worth to you. You're the one who has to live with the doll, not whoever wrote your price guide or set the auction reserve! Establish criteria and stick with them. If you don't like dolls that are chipped or mended, don't buy them, even if they are extremely rare or of a type you have wanted for a long time. If you don't mind knowing that a chip or mend exists, however, there's no reason to be ashamed of picking such a doll up at a low rate. It's all a matter of what's important to you. Here are some things to look out for:
Paint job. How skillful was the original paint job? Does it cover the front and the back both? How faded is it (unfaded Japanese bisques are rare in the extreme, and it is arguably worth increasing the price you're willing to pay in order to get an unfaded paint job)? Are the colors and expression attractive to you? Note: Most all-bisques have a soft tone, with white showing through almost all their paint. Some have thicker paint coatings in places, which look to me like poster paint, and which I suspect are the result of touch-up by young owners. Only you can decide if this is a defect or not.
Cleanliness. It is very difficult to wash an unfired bisque without losing paint!
Wholeness. Bisque is as subject to chipping and cracking as other ceramics, and should be carefully examined for such damage before agreeing to a price. To give you an idea of how fragile bisque is - I broke Patsy's foot when I had her out for a picture-taking session. Another doll, whole when I bought him, vibrated off the glass shelf of the cabinet and broke into four or five pieces, which had to be carefully crazy-glued back together. (I have since started fixing them to the shelf with double-stick tape.) Other forms of mending include re-stringing, re-painting, and the replacement of lost limbs. The dealer may not inform you, or may not herself be aware, of a good mending job. I have seen one doll, nearly identical to my "Patsy," for sale at what would be a fair price, except that this doll has obvious Kewpie starfish-handed arms instead of the original bent-elbow Japanese arms.
Age. This is very hard to determine indeed. I have three dolls in my collection which I obtained because I liked them and they met the price criteria, but which I suspect are reproductions. In my opinion, all reproductions should be signed and dated (I have one of these, too -- an excellent little boy in a snowsuit, whose paint job is artistically faded, whom I would have taken for an original if he didn't have 1985 inscribed on his spine), but the makers don't ask my permission. Older bisques are usually a little dirty and a little faded. Where the white bisque shows through, it is likely to have a slight grayish tinge. If wire-strung, the wire is likely to be gray and brittle-looking. A new-looking dress may indicate a reproduction, since few collectors make new clothes for such dolls. As always, caveat emptor!
In order to identify a doll, you will need:
The second most important doll is even more of a survivor. Mary Sue was given to my mother when she was five years old. Her Great-Aunt Fanny Burkhardt made similar linen rag dolls, each with a name label in masking tape on her back, for each of the female nieces. To the best of my knowledge, Mary Sue is the sole survivor. She too has all her stuffing. Her brown yarn braids are whole and dark. Her embroidered face, with its slightly distressed expression, has not frayed or lost a stitch. She still has her knit boots, and though the pattern on her skirt and vest is faded in the front, she still has the entire outfit, down to her underwear. Her masking tape label has not even peeled or cracked.
These dolls are special to me, because I know who played with them, what vicissitudes they survived in order to wind up in my cabinet. I can only guess at the games and dangers my all-bisques have endured. But the dolls that have been played with are the ones who mean the most to me. They are survivors. They have earned my admiration and my love.
Miss Hickory. By Carolyn Sherwyn Bailey. A disturbing book full of memorable scenes and characters. The crow was my first introduction to moral ambiguity; Miss Hickory my first awareness that a character did not have to be thoroughly likeable in order to be interesting.
Two Are Better Than One. By Carol Ryrie Brink. The dolls in this book do not come alive, but they are central characters. And the novel-within-the-novel is something else!
Drusilla. By Emma Brock. Narrated by a cornhusk doll, "the most useful unuseful thing Aunt Polly ever made," who travels to Minnesota in a covered wagon, saves the family from a bear, and worries about her complexion. The depiction of Indians in this book will embarrass you, but is essentially benevolent. It doesn't fly today, but it was reasonably enlightened for 1937, when this book was published.
The Return of the Twelves. By Pauline Clarke. Hey, I don't care what anybody says, a toy soldier is a doll! This one's a must-read for Bronte fans.
Hitty: Her First Hundred Years. By Rachel Field. The globe-trotting adventures of the world's most famous little wooden doll should need no introduction from me. Did you know there's a doll collecting sub-category which specializes in "Hitty dolls?" Check out Jean Lotz's Hitty page to find out more when you're done here.
Impunity Jane. By Rumer Godden. The story of a doll who belonged in a pocket, not in a dollhouse. Although Godden describes her as made of thick china, the illustrations make it clear that Jane is a German candystore doll. I shudder to think what she'd be worth, and how bored she'd be in my doll cabinet!
The Story of Holly and Ivy. By Rumer Godden. Another "china" doll who makes more sense as a bisque. I suspect Godden just didn't know the difference, or didn't expect her readers to. Holly is a Christmas doll. Ivy is her Christmas girl, an orphan who decides she has a grandmother in Aylesbury and goes looking for her. The plot is sentimental, but the style isn't particularly, and I have a weakness for this sort of story. The stuffed owl Abracadabra is a villain, rare in doll stories.
Candy Floss. By Rumer Godden. Candy Floss is a contented career girl, the "luck" of Jack's coconut shy enterprise, kidnapped by a spoiled, selfish little rich girl.
The Doll's House.By Rumer Godden. A tragedy. The saddest doll story ever written, and the villain doesn't even get punished. You have been warned.
Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. By Rumer Godden. These two Japanese dolls have traveled and suffered before the story begins, but now all they want is a house of their own -- a Japanese house. And Nona, also a transplant, is determined that they shall have one. There's plans and instructions in the back for the craft-minded.
Margo's House. By Peni R. Griffin. Ahem. The dolls are wooden and homemade. I may be wrong, but I think this is the first story in which the "live dolls" motif is used with black dolls. I go into the practical difficulties of being four inches high and having limited mobility quite a bit, and don't miss the exciting escape from the cat!
Caitlin's Holiday and Doll Trouble.By Helen V. Griffith. Holiday is a live doll -- the only one in the world, so she thinks. Only Caitlin, who surreptitiously "traded" her old doll for her at the resale shop, knows her secret. These are delightful books, full of convincing child/doll interaction and fashion doll priorities, and demonstrates that a doll need not be old to have personality.
Missing Melinda. By Jacqueline Jackson. It's been out of print forever, and what a shame that is! Written in alternate chapters by twins Cordelia and Ophelia Gibbs, this is the story of how they found Melinda, the Priceless Heirloom, lost her before they even knew she was a Priceless Heirloom, solved the mystery of who stole her, and got her back. To this day, the words "doll collector" bring to mind the overflowing house of Mrs. Otis.
Magic Elizabeth. By Norma Kassirer. This is a slight but enjoyable time-travel story, with the doll Elizabeth as deus ex machina.
The Doll People. By Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin; pictures by Brian Selznick. 2000 A traditional dollhouse story with an adventurous heirloom heroine finding friendship among the plastic moderns, a search for a missing aunt, and some spirited singing ("R-E-S-P-E-C-T!") around the parlor piano.
A Child of Their Own. By Justine Rendel. The Darlings, a family of porcelain dolls, dread nothing so much as the storekeeper's judgement that they aren't really playthings, but are suitable for the Serious Collector. Amanda Miranda, a cheaper china doll, longs to become a part of the Darling family along with her rambunctious brother Reveley. All are bought by an American Lady, who begins to fix up a magnificent dollhouse -- but is she a Serious Collector, or will they get a a child of their own to play with them and keep them alive?
Memoirs of a London Doll, "edited by Mrs. Fairstair." Copyright is Macmillan, 1922, but the introduction claims that this is a reprint, with new illustrations by Emma Brock (author of Drusilla),of a much older book uncovered during a move of a Brooklyn public library. The introduction refers to the fictional events as taking place "about a hundred years ago," which would make this, if not mere authorial fiction (and I haven't had a chance to read it yet and search for clues) one of the earliest, if not the earliest, stories with a doll as a character. The introduction is by Clara Whitehill Hunt, who will be the author if "Mrs. Fairstair" isn't.
And then there were the ones I didn't enjoy so much:
A Candle in Her Room. By Ruth M. Arthur. This scared the snot out of me. I don't like evil doll stories, and Dido, for all she never had a line of dialog or made a visible motion, was as evil as they come.
The Mennyms. By Sylvia Waugh. Imaginative and original, yes; but also gloomy and paranoid. Most dolls long for little girls to play with. The Mennyms just want to be left alone.
The Fairy Doll. By Rumer Godden. This is the story of a little girl with a singularly nasty family, rather than of a doll.
I know there's more than that. Help me out here! How about The Secret of Madame Doll, about the French fashion doll with the silver hidden inside her, during the American Revolution? I remember there was another Revolutionary War story, with the doll as narrator. Deborah Remembers was the title, but I don't recall the author. There was a very old one in which the dolls were stranded on a desert island -- and it was only a few months ago that I read one about a family of dollhouse dolls, who had a limited free will and could influence the little girl playing with them subtly, through telepathy, in the Godden tradition, but it was a much more recent book.
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