Martha Newell with Paper Dalls

Rhea County resident Martha Newell holds an item from her paper doll collection designed by paper doll artist Tom Tierney.

“I’m gonna buy a Paper Doll that I can call my own”

These are lyrics from the hit song which was sung by the Mills Brothers, and held the number-one position on the Billboard singles chart for twelve weeks from Nov. 6, 1943, to Jan. 22, 1944. This song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and has been named one of the Songs of the Century. It is also a reminder for some of us that paper dolls are pieces from our past.

A paper doll is a two-dimensional figure which is drawn or printed on paper or cardboard, and has clothes which accompany it. These clothes could be anything from underware to outerware, and include accessories. Many of these appeared as paper doll books, in boxed sets, as sets in envelopes, were printed in newspapers, magazines, and Victorian trading cards, and, now, are on the Internet in free, printable form.

Paper dolls were first introduced in the eighteenth century in Paris during the reign of Louis XV; and from the 1870’s to the 1890’s, the European manufacturers were producing lithographed full-color paper dolls which represented famous theater personalities and royalty. Then, beginning around 1866, the best known manufacturer of antique paper dolls was Raphael Tuck. His company began by producing paper dolls for Queen Elizabeth II and her family in London, and later opened branch offices in Paris and New York. He also made “regular” paper dolls, and continued for several years into the twentieth century.

“Godey’s Ladey’s Book” was the first magazine to print a paper doll in black and white with a page of costumes for children to color in November, 1859. Even though this was the only paper doll ever published by the magazine, it began a trend which many women’s magazines followed for years to come. Probably the most remembered magazine paper doll in America was Betsy McCall. Betsy McCall first appeared in McCall’s Magazine in May of 1951, and continued until the 1990’s. Many of us can remember being excited to see the next issue of McCall’s in order to find out what Betsy McCall was wearing in the following publication. Also, in October of 1954, “Betsy McCall’s Paper Doll Story Book” was published, just in time for the holiday gift season. This book had Betsy McCall’s family as paper dolls, costume pages, story pages, and the front and back covers as storage envelopes.

I have many pleasant memories of cutting out and dressing paper dolls during my early childhood. At first these paper dolls were cut out, then later die cut, so they could be “punched” out and enjoyed without the untidiness of extra paper or cardboard.

A number of years ago I spoke on the phone with Mrs. Margie Wallis of Decatur, Ga., who was an avid collector of paper dolls. Formerly from Dayton, Miss Margie kept in touch with her good friends here, including Mrs. Martha Roberts Newell. The two of them spoke often on the phone, and it was a visit with Miss Martha that allowed me to speak with Mrs. Wallis. Mrs. Newell also collects paper dolls, and showed me many that Miss Margie had sent to Mrs. Newell’s daughter, Janet Newell Sexton (who grew up in Dayton). Janet is also a collector, and is passing on that love of paper dolls to her four year old granddaughter, Haley Sexton.

Miss Margie told me that her love for paper dolls grew out of her childhood when she and her sister used to cut out paper dolls from newspapers. She began to collect these; however, her collecting was interrupted when she married and had a family. Then, in 1990, she became interested in collecting paper dolls again. She has been to national conventions for paper doll collectors and met paper doll artists, such as Tom Tierney. She commissioned Mr. Tierney to design paper dolls for her, and noted that he has designed paper dolls of many famous people, including movie stars and all the presidents and their families. Miss Margie also stated that she subscribed to several magazines for collectors, including “Paper Doll Review” and “Paper Doll Studio,” both published in Kingfield, Maine. I also found out from her that uncut paper dolls are worth twice as much as those already cut out, and that a collector should watch for reproductions. In addition, she told me that companies are making paper dolls on plastic now, and that paper dolls began as a way to show clothes designs in earlier times. My conversation with Miss Margie was very informative and interesting, and made me more appreciative of the paper dolls I had grown up with. Miss Margie is no longer with us; therefore, I am truly glad that I was able to have that conversation with her and learn more about paper dolls.

Perhaps the “Golden Age of Paper Dolls” was between the 1930’s and 1950’s, as those were the years of greatest popularity of the paper doll. And, according to Miss Margie, more paper dolls were made during World War II because of women being involved in the armed services. Therefore, the paper doll can lovingly be passed down from generation to generation as an historical piece of one’s past. I’m sure many Rhea County households can find the remains of some “well-loved” paper doll collections from their ancestors. These kinds of things help us to remember to learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.

Pat Guffey can be reached at pat459@charter.net