I’ve had such pleasure over the past several days reading Gloria Nixon’s latest book, Rag Darlings. The book explains and illustrates the history of the rag doll in America, a history about which I knew very little. This history also directly relates to the feedsack industry since so many of them were printed directly on feedsacks. I wanted to tell you all about it the day that I got the book (details about how to get your copy are below), but as I sat down to look at it, I realized that it deserved a good, thorough read before I could even start writing about it.
The book is full of so many wonderful color photos, showing more cloth dolls than I ever even knew existed. These are rag dolls that were printed on feedsacks (and later, paper) or, especially in the case of the earliest dolls, handmade at home from scraps. The oldest doll shown in the book is nearly 500 years old.
Some of these “babies” are sweet and some are just downright kooky. I could spend hours just looking at the photos! But even better than just photos, Gloria has matched up well-researched history with the images. I especially loved reading about the origins of Aunt Jemima pancake mix. It was interesting to me because it’s a Missouri story. It’s a story of struggles and victories, and of some pretty darned ingenious marketing. Reading it also helped fill in some of the back story because Aunt Jemima has been in the news lately.
Gloria and I have never met in real life, but we will one day. We don’t live too far apart, and we have several friends in common. We also share a love of the Kansas Flint Hills and feedsacks so I know we’ll get along just fine when we do meet. In case you’re wondering, Gloria also wrote the book, Feedsack Secrets: Fashion from Hard Times, which is well worth a read.
Gloria signed my book and even sent me a set of authentic, uncut Munsingwear paper dolls from 1918 (pictured below). These were used as advertising promotionals by department stores around the time of WWI. (How lucky am I??) My mom often talks about how she loved paper dolls when she was small. I think they’re sweet, but I always got frustrated by them because I could never understand how to fold those paper tabs to keep their clothes on. My paper dolls always looked sort of bedraggled, either half-naked or with torn clothes. Not to worry, I won’t be cutting these dolls up.
I didn’t play with cloth dolls when I was little. I didn’t play with dolls at all. My mom once told me that she brought me a doll home once and I saw it and said, “That’s okay. You can give it to me later.” (Yes, I was an ungrateful little brat). The truth is that I preferred playing in the dirt pile out back (at least when we lived in Colorado) with the boys. (We had the coolest old pink-and-white Tonka jeep that I loved to “drive” around that pile.) I remember being warned that there were scorpions in our dirt pile too, but dig and play and drive we did. No harm done.
Even though I didn’t play with dolls, I did have a few. I had a Chatty Baby doll that had a string that you pulled to make her talk. Her voice box is now worn out but my sister had her “restored” several years ago, so I do still have her. Later I had Barbies, of course, but they had belonged to my sister and were never really mine. I was never half as crazy about them as other girls were. One thing I did like, though, was having clothes for them. My grandmother taught me to make their dresses, taking tiny little running stitches for seams. That is where my love of sewing began. My mom helped me along that path, too. Today, I marvel at the patience she showed as I got SO frustrated when things didn’t work the way they were supposed to.
After we moved to Kansas City when I was six, I remember saving up the cost of a doll that I could get by sending in a coupon from a cereal box. I may have had to save proofs of purchase or some other thing too, because I remember it wasn’t a once-and-done thing. Now why I chose to buy a doll I don’t know, but buy it I did. It was a homely thing, but I think it started my love affair with mail order.
I do have one doll that is kind of special to me. She is one of the original Cabbage Patch dolls, before they were made of plastic (they were called “Little People” then, before they were sold to Coleco). I suspect that she was one of the last commercially-produced “rag” dolls. Her body is made of a sheer fabric that resembles nylon stockings, and she is clearly hand-made, down to her hand-painted blue eyes. She was made by Xavier Roberts at Babyland General in Cleveland, Georgia. Her name is Tracy Adora (I even still have her birth certificate). I bought her in Savannah, Georgia, in 1979, when my mom, my friend Heather, and her mom went to Hilton Head. Tracy’s moved several times, and has gotten a little smudgy, but she still tickles me. That is a good memory from my high school years. Heather got one too. Hers was named Julian Adair. I don’t know what happened to Julian, though. Heather died in 1992 and I have not been very good about staying in touch with her mom.
I am much fonder of dolls today than I ever was as a child. Cloth dolls, especially, are so endearing. And, like my Tracy, I think they become endued with fond thoughts over time. If you’ve ever loved a doll, or known a child who did, check out Gloria’s book. You can order directly from her at Nixon.firstname.lastname@example.org. If you send her your PayPal user name, she can invoice you directly $26.95, which includes free media mail shipping. You’ll be so glad you did.
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