Black Dolls: The New York Times

Black Dolls:
The New York Times

Project Description

A Love for Vintage Dolls That Never Grows Old

FEB 5, 2015 – Deborah J. Neff, a toy collector in suburban Connecticut, has acquired hundreds of antique cloth dolls depicting African-Americans. They were handmade from the 1850s to the 1930s, but little information has survived about their seamstresses and original owners. About 125 of Ms. Neff’s dolls, as well as vintage photos of white and black children holding the playthings, go on view Saturday at Mingei International Museum in San Diego.

Many are dressed as prosperous adults, in outfits with lace trim and brass buttons. Embroidered and painted heads are reinforced with coconut shells and recycled parts from white dolls.

Frank Maresca, a co-owner of the Ricco/Maresca gallery in Manhattan and editor of the Mingei show’s catalog (from Radius Books/Distributed Art Publishers), said that the Neff dolls “were made with dignity and love.”

Ms. Neff wrote in an email that the collection came from about a hundred sources, including “flea markets, high-end antique shows and everywhere in between.” A few makers are identifiable. “One of my coconut dolls has an inked inscription on her torso from a St. Louis mother to her son dated Christmas 1879,” she wrote.

Christine Knoke, the Mingei museum’s chief curator, said the display would have clusters of dolls with similar components, such as coconut heads. “They’re going to be in harmonious groups,” she said.

Ms. Neff wrote that she hoped to keep the dolls together “permanently in a public collection.”

“At this point, though, I am too attached to them to think about letting them go,” she added. “Even shipping them off temporarily to the Mingei has left me feeling like an empty nester.”

Her suppliers of dolls and photos of children with dolls over the years have included two specialty dealers, Kathy Schoemer, in Walpole, N.H., and Pat Hatch, in Harvard, Mass. Ms. Hatch exhibited her collection in 2007 and 2008 in a traveling show, “No Longer Hidden.” She has researched abolitionists who made black dolls to sell at fund-raisers for Union troops, and black caregivers who sewed them for white children.

In the children’s eyes, Ms. Hatch said, black slaves and servants “were the mother figures, the one that was there soothing them and fixing their wounds.”

Link to article at New York Times.