Dolls' Houses Past & Present

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Speculations on Wooden Bodied China Dolls by Caty Hancox


It would be wonderful to find the definitive book on wooden bodied china dolls. So far the slight gleanings from the most authoritative encyclopaedias and books are just tantalizing.  That has a lot to do with the rarity of this type of doll and the fact that those volumes are designed to cover the whole subject of antique dolls, so a definitive study of my obscure corner of interest was not their highest priority. As examples are rare and widely dispersed it has been hard to collect a large enough sample to study productively before the Internet arrived. Now the Internet is ubiquitous, with sites like eBay and Ruby Lane, as well as the more specific sites and dealers accessible, more examples can at least be seen and their individual attributes compared. It is possible to see patterns and variations even if there is no definitive information on what those patterns mean. Original dolls situated in their original, dated boxes or dolls' houses would be a great help but very few are recorded.


Novelist and biographer Elizabeth Jenkins wrote the book she wanted to find, but being so far away from the area where these dolls were made and speaking no German at all, the likelihood of that happening here is not great. My objective must be to collect examples by purchase and photograph, try to isolate the patterns from the examples available, then record and share my probably wild speculations.


Most of the dolls in my small collection are not in perfect condition, most came without clothing. Emma and Mary have their original clothes; Emma's are sewn in place, Mary's are removable. Anne had clothing also but while old, it had been roughly adjusted to fit her and swamped her. It was informative however and naturally I have kept it with documentation to explain what is what. It is important for these fragile dolls to be dressed appropriately as the clothing protects them   The challenge is to use appropriate techniques for which books like The Collector's Book of Dolls' Clothes, Costumes in Miniature: 1700 - 1929 by  Dorothy S., Elizabeth A. and Evelyn J. Coleman, and the Workwoman's Guide, among others, are essential. The old clothing which does come also gives so much information. 

There is only one doll in my collection with anything like provenance and that only goes back to the early 20th C. While not ideal from a collector's point of view their imperfection has enabled me to get an insight into how these dolls were made: those that were slip cast and those that were press-moulded, how the china heads were attached and how their wooden joints were designed.

My former career as a doll maker has also been useful. Reproduction dolls have never appealed to me. My ambition was to produce individual dolls' house people from my own lifetime (with very occasional exceptions). This led to an unconventional training in that while commercial slip was used, my most useful skills and knowledge: mould making, sculpture, kiln management, glazes and the various forms of ceramic bodies and types of colour employed, were taught me by very talented studio potters. My career began not in doll shows but in the art gallery system, an odd fit even then, but those uncomfortable margins can be a fascinating place to play. As a career it was never very remunerative but it gave me satisfying challenges. It also gave me a persona independent of daughter, wife and mother while never competing with those roles. It took me traveling, introduced me to wonderful people and several distinguished private collections which were not all toy related but were instructional.

The most extensive collection is not always the most successful, focus matters more than investment, the choices made not the money spent.  Really inspiring collections allow the separate items to inform and cross-reference each other, making a whole richer than the sum of its parts.



Wooden bodied china dolls are something of a puzzle. Seemingly made by a factory associated with the Kister name around 1850 for perhaps a decade or two, the dolls themselves are almost always lovely examples of early black haired chinas. They have china fore arms and lower legs with painted slippers, the rest of their bodies being wooden, the parts connected with wooden pegs. They are another iteration of the dolls with articulated wooden bodies which began with the Peg Woodens earlier in the 19th century.  There are two usual methods of attaching the head to the body. One has a single wooden peg that is inserted up through the neck, the other has a specifically shaped shoulder plate with two holes at the front and one single hole in the middle of the back where the wooden pegs attach the head to the body.  The Collectors' Encyclopaedia of Dolls by Dorothy S., Elizabeth A., and Evelyn J. Coleman, 1968, page 133, shows photographs of both and a catalogue page showing the first variety dated between 1845 and 1860.


The peg through the neck variety seems to have both hands in a relaxed position and often has flat black slippers although they can also be red and just occasionally other colours or flat black ankle boots. My own example and others in photographs are pink tinted with an assertive pink lustre. The catalogue page shows several distinct and recognizable hair styles, Windswept; Sophia Smith; Covered Wagon; and one that could be "Queen Victoria" with or without exposed ears.


Dolls with three hole shoulder plate attachment mostly have flat red slippers, the right hand is usually but not always modelled closed with a hole so that something could be held and the skin tone seems to be subtle.  The same hairstyles apply.



Both shoulder plate styles use the same flange joint for attaching the china parts at elbows and knees.


Did one shoulder plate style precede the other or were they concurrent? Flat black ankle boots seem to appear after the flat slippers have been around for some time on dolls, does that point to that shoulder plate being the later style?


The peg through the neck seems to be the most straight forward method, with some firing advantages like stability which would have meant a lower percentage of wasters, however it may use more clay and take longer to dry before firing. What drove the change? Or why use two shoulder plate styles at the same time?


China dolls enjoyed their zenith during the 1850s; they did persist for several decades thereafter, but the most fashionable dolls began to be produced in unglazed porcelain known as bisque and occasionally, when white like the marble, Parian. Apart from the greater realism leaving the glaze off allowed, there were definite production advantages to using unglazed porcelain.


The Collectors' Encyclopaedia, pages 200-203, mentions the Kister firm in association with the firm of Dressel, the Dressel firm being one which specialized in wooden toys. My rash leap of imagination sees Kister as the manufacturer of the china parts and Dressel as the manufacturer of the wooden bodies. There is no proof of this to my knowledge but someone made them. The china parts certainly correlate to the style of wasters found on the Kister factory site. (Identifying German Chinas 1840s -1930s, by Mary Gorham Krombholz, Hobby House Press, 2004).


Ann Meehan's 7 inch doll in her original pink starred gown is a handsome example with many desirable attributes. She has a less common hairstyle (does anyone know the name of this style?) and all her original limbs in good order.

Her right hand is modeled in the grip position and she has the three peg shoulder plate usually associated with it. This is clearly outlined under the bodice. The painting of her face has the red eyelid line and a pleasant pink skin tint. This is a very fine doll.  




Another of her dolls, a young man with Windswept hairstyle, illustrates the other shoulder plate style very clearly as he is unencumbered by clothing. More about him later.



Ann's 8.5 inch doll dressed in buff coloured silk, is a classic example of the three peg shoulder plate with early hairstyle. She did come in a box with a letter to her future owners.

This is Ann Meehan's description of the letter:

The letter was written in 1921. I believe it is a letter written by the owner of the doll who wants to find her a good home. So she has addressed it to Mary and although the doll tells of her past and where she lived, she does not know her birth place, She talks about who owned her and living in Cincinnati. She is describing herself as neither wrinkled or gray and must be at least 65 years old.



So if this is written in 1921 and she is at least 65 years old, that would put her at 1856. But she is saying approximately that age. The only defect in my make up is that I have no ears. My skirts are too long and my heels are too low for the present style. I have never had silk stockings, spats nor a wrist watch. Then she asks if she can come and live with you. I am well preserved and should make the century mark. I shall be grateful for anything you can do for me. Signed: Mary Ann




So it is a cute letter, especially written in this old penmanship and dated Dec. 25,1921. So this doll is coming to live with her new owner and her past owner wants her to take good care of her.


Such useful information is very important as it puts this handsome doll early in the production period. It also demonstrates how precious this doll has always been and how much care has been taken of her, a credit to those owners.

This doll is a similar mould to Anne who will be discussed soon. Their hairstyle, face shape, shoulder plate, limb modelling and paint details are almost the same. Each one is still their own personality however, quite recognizably an individual.




Ann's wonderful Lady in Black Gown and gorgeous beaded bonnet is a straight peg through the neck shoulder plate with both hands in the relaxed position and flat black boots, no garters.



She has a wonderfully modelled face, one with great sensitivity. That quality alone is reason to love these dolls.   Her tint is subtle and her hairstyle a rare variation on Queen Victoria's. She has much in common with Ann's undressed gentleman. The photos will explain better than words can.


Not only is she a wonderful doll, her clothing is exceptional in quality, style and workmanship, both outer garments and underwear. That bonnet crowns the sublime whole.




The undressed dolls to illustrate the hypotheses so far:



Anne, 6.5 inches, (also shown in back view to show the single peg back fixing), is a mature adult doll with a longer neck and hairstyle from the 1840s. She has the three peg shoulder plate and typical small waisted body which is tall with legs close to half her total height. Her legs have the original wooden thighs but the china lower legs are replacements. She is another classic example with an early hairstyle.  


Charlotte, 5 inches, began this fascination and collection. She was acquired by a doll collecting friend who introduced me to her, thereafter my visits to Eunice always included a chat with Charlotte and led to studying anything available on these dolls. Eventually Eunice decided to downsize her collection and offered Charlotte to me. She is a lovely version of the Covered Wagon hairstyle, the most common type of early china, with the three peg shoulder plate and flat red slippers. The wooden upper legs were replaced by the collector preceding Eunice. That collector bought her disassembled from an English migrant family in South Australia, to whom Charlotte had belonged for many years before their departure for the colonies.  


Eliza, 5 inches, is a peg through the neck straight shoulder plate head on a replacement body. Her head was formed by clay pressed into the mould. She also has a Covered Wagon hairstyle and a definite pink tint but apart from the way she was formed and shoulder plate style, her modelling is indistinguishable from Charlotte's. Her face and hair painting is very similar also, it looks almost as if the same hand painted both.  



Fanny, 7.5 inches, was an expensive mistake but an informative one. She did look a bit odd in the pictures but came with a first prize ribbon from some show or other. Her feet were very odd so that was factored into my calculations, also the less original than claimed clothing, as the underwear lace was too late by a considerable number of decades. The grief came when she proved to be a damaged head with four sew holes designed for a cloth body. This crudely wired onto the wooden body which had been padded with wood filler to fit her shoulder plate. She did have all her original limbs, but only one hand undamaged. The other hand and the front of both feet had been restored with epoxy putty and dental plaster, all skilfully air brushed. This explained the odd feet, no other Covered Wagon China with Mary Jane straps springs to mind. The ribbon explains the deception.

The undamaged left hand is unusual in that the thumb is a separately modelled digit. The body was totally unexpected, it determined me to keep the doll even if imperfect and expensive.  Rather than the defined tiny waist and arched hip line usually seen, the body curved smoothly from armpits over the hip area to the bottom of the torso with no defined waistline at all.



My first assumption was that it was an early body as I had seen a photograph of an Apollo Knot Papier Mâché with articulated wooden body from the 1830s whose torso had a very similar silhouette. This now seems very doubtful as the legs have red painted garters with bows on the outside of the leg. There is the possibility that she was an assemblage from many odds and ends but the china limbs do fit the wood very closely so that also looks unlikely. As an addition to the collection she was a disaster but as a learning opportunity, very stimulating.



Mary, 5 inches, is a curious Covered Wagon china doll.  She has one peg/sew hole in the front and one in the back. Her hands and feet were specifically made for an articulated wooden body but are on her original cloth body, sewn around those china limbs with very even hand stitching which, with the wear and well proportioned shape, seem to indicate a professionally made factory product.  Her pink lustre is also quite noticeable but the modelling is a little less refined and the porcelain is a little more coarse than that usually associated with wooden body Chinas giving a slightly gritty texture to the glaze. Her painting is also less detailed, there is no red lid line above her eyes. Someone certainly loved her, she came with her original hand-stitched and removable clothing and her feet and hand have been repaired. Luckily her feet were modelled onto her original red-gartered legs, again with bows painted on the outside. The undamaged right hand, which is often modelled as a fist with a hole through it, in this case is straight. 

My belief is that she is at least a decade later than most other Covered Wagon chinas in my collection as the single hole front and back shoulder plate appears on dolls with clear 1860s attributes. Either her china limbs were left over when wooden body production ceased or her porcelain quality did not merit the expense of a wooden body.



Catherine, 3.5 inches, is another wooden body china with the single peg hole front and back, so two holes in total. She has straight hands and red garters below the knee (bows on the outside of each leg) with red slippers. Her china is of a higher quality and her pink tint is more subtle than the cloth bodied Mary.  Her china and tint quality equal the other dolls in the collection. There is similarity with Mary however, both dolls are less precisely modelled than the earlier Covered Wagon dolls. Mary and Catherine also share similar face painting with no red lid line which even small earlier do dolls have.


Emma, 2.5 inches, perhaps represents the last gasp of wooden body dolls with porcelain heads. She is a tiny early parian on an amazingly small jointed wooden body, including all wooden limbs with elbow and knee joints. She is still wearing her original silk dress and her original undergarments. They are too fragile to allow investigating her body thoroughly but it is wooden. 

None of my references give any history for this variation and only two other examples have come up during my searches. It would be wonderful to replace speculation with good solid fact based knowledge.



Occasionally books on antique dolls will show a china head on a full wooden body like Emma's: a wooden body with wooden hands and feet. These are more usually found on dolls with articulated wooden bodies and papier mâché heads. This variety of dolls may constitute late examples as the china heads in three cases of the four have 1860s hairstyles. The fourth is a very small china doll 2.5 inches, with what looks like the straight shoulder plate with the single peg up through the neck and 1840s hairstyle.  She could have been made later, or the tiny hands and feet could have been more easily produced in wood than glazed china. Including the tiny parian, Emma, three of the five dolls with this body type are less than 2.75 inches in height, one is 3.5 inches, the other, shown here, is a 7 inch china man with a very definite 1860s hairstyle and facial hair (goatee and moustache).  




Early dolls seem to have been given garters much less frequently than later ones. Where they do occur on dolls with early characteristics, the garters are usually painted in blue or pink, and the bows most often placed on the front of the leg.  The available evidence suggests that either red garters with bows on the side of the leg indicate a comparatively late doll, or they were a feature on a small percentage of dolls from the beginning of production but became more common as production proceeded. Those side garters certainly occur more often on dolls with a later feel or mine are a statistical anomaly. Legs often do not survive, but out of four sets of original legs on my own dolls, three have the same red garters with bows on the side of the leg, two of the three are certainly late (1860s) examples, the third may well be.



The Collectors' Encyclopaedia, page 227, plate 555, shows a china leg with flat black boot made for a cloth body china with the garter bow also painted on the outside leg. This is for a china-limb doll with snood head from the late 1850s - 1860s.  As mentioned before, the few other wooden bodied chinas with garters illustrated in various books are earlier in hairstyle and show the bow on the front of the leg and in a contrasting colour. Garters front or side, do seem to occur more frequently on china dolls of all body types in the 1860s.

This leads to me to think the unusual shape of Fanny's body may still be from an early doll, but probably not. Without the original head that is as much as can be asserted.


The hairstyle appellations given to early black-haired china dolls are mystifying (Queen Victoria, Lydia, Covered Wagon, Sophia Smith, Adelina Patti, Jenny Lind, Curly Top, Countess Dagmar, Mary Todd Lincoln, Flat Top, Dolly Madison, Highland Mary, Low Brow, among others). Covered Wagon is the most numerous among the earlier ones and appears about 1850 when china doll production seems to have taken off. Hairstyles on early black haired chinas are useful but not definitive, they indicate a date before which the doll could not have been made but not when it was.

Body proportions appear to change over the years of wooden bodied china doll production. Early dolls seem to be tall in proportion to their head size with normal leg length. Legs overall appear to be proportionally shorter and heads larger in later dolls.  These larger head and shorter leg proportions may just indicate the doll was meant to be a child. Child dolls were less common before 1850, but became the dominant type later in that century.

Arm length also diminishes on later cloth body china and bisque heads, but this is not noticeable on the wooden bodied chinas. They may have ceased to be produced before this trend emerged. Fanny's body with long legs might push it back to "early" again, or not, the evidence will not give an unequivocal answer. It does have slight  similarity to Catherine's body, although, as Catherine does represent a child, she has short legs. She is definitely a later example. The single hole front and back shoulder plate is uncommon but seems to occur after 1860, usually on a cloth body.


This is a sea of "ifs", "buts" "ands" and "maybes" swirling and clashing, with the faint hope that some flotsam of fact will rise to the surface. Making a collection, even a small one, is an opportunity to learn by comparison, research and assessment. Complete dolls can tell a lot, headless bodies can raise questions and issues, heads without bodies are lovely but tend to keep their secrets.  It is essential to keep an open mind so new evidence can revise or even correct assumptions. Whatever the result, the sheer exhilaration of this process is addictive.  



Ann Meehan's very handsome male wooden bodied china, 7.5 inches tall, with a peg through the neck, straight shoulder plate shown on her website,, contradicts almost everything else said about this type earlier. The skin tint is subtle and his legs have flat black ankle boots with blue bows on the side of the leg.


He looks to be in perfect original condition and is another good quality representative with nice brush-stroked hair detail. He is the first straight shoulder plate example to unarguably present either black ankle boots or garters. The more examples one can see the better and if there is any dating evidence... Hoopla hoopla! (and actually I do mean that most sincerely)


The attributes that constitute date indicators while by no means conclusive are:

  • Hairstyle
  • The absence or presence of heels on modelled feet, and perhaps ankle boots.
  • Clothing. Original clothing may help, Mary's original clothing suggests the 1860s but her shoulder plate was convincing.
  • Shoulder plate where this is single hole front and back.  
  • The wooden torso profile may also be subject to change with the changing fashions so a possible dating indicator. This is just a suspicion for the present.
  • Type of porcelain employed if not glazed china.
  • Body proportions and leg length.
  • Garter bow placement does not give conclusive information so far but may yet do so.


Perhaps a dreaded spreadsheet would help trends emerge.


If anyone else has information they are happy to share it would be most welcome. Rebecca may be able to accommodate it in future editions of Dolls' Houses Past and Present.



Most grateful thanks must go to Ann Meehan for her generous assistance, expertise and permission to quote her and use photos of the male doll on her website and for supplying others of four dolls from her fine collection.  Also to Rebecca Green who understood, encouraged and made the connections.


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