The doll is thousands of years
old; it has been found inside the graves of little Roman children,
and will be found again by the archeologists of a future date
amongst the remains of our own culture. A popular antique doll that
portrayed a baby was made in England from wax at the beginning of
the 19th century. Germany,
Switzerland, and France were the principal manufacturers of toys in
the 19th century, but the manufacture of the antique wax doll was
a specialty of England. The French dolls had a reputation for beauty
and tasteful dress while the English doll, made in the form of a
child, was designated as a plaything.
Because wax could mimic skin
much better than either wood or papier mâché, wax dolls had
beautifully realistic heads. The English antique doll was substantial and
well made, could be dressed and undressed, was plain in her attire,
and dressed like a child. It was very different from the French
doll, arrayed like a marquise in silks and satins, with her eyeglass
and her poodle dog.
Fine Pierotti Poured Wax Baby, English circa 1870: Antique Victorian doll features a delicately molded head with light blue glass eyes, down turned mouth and molded ears, inserted short auburn hair and on a cloth body with wax lower arms and legs. The poured wax Pierotti doll is wearing the original white satin night gown with layers of undergarments, bonnet and cape with 'Hamley's, London label', together with extra clothing. 48cm (19in) tall. [Image Credit: www.bonhams.com]
Skilled doll makers such as Montanari and Pierotti
pioneered poured wax dolls. The Pierotti family was in business for
over a century, from 1793. The Montanari establishment was a
flourishing attraction at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The catalog
for the Exhibition described the Montanari display:
"In the North
Transept Gallery, Class 29, Case 122, we find a rich display of
model wax and rag dolls by Madame Montanari. These playthings are
indeed very beautifully modelled, the hair inserted into the head,
eyelashes, and eyebrows. They represent the different stages of
childhood up to womanhood, and are arranged in the case so as to
form interesting family groups. They include portraits of several of
the royal children."
Antique Montanari Wax Doll, English, circa 1850-1860: This is a
rare 21" marked Montanari antique doll, still retaining its original "Montanari"
ink signature on the lower front torso on its original cloth
body, superior modeling of poured wax shoulder head with a
very expressive face, poured wax limbs, original inserted
blond human hair, blue set glass eyes, stunning antique silk
costume and hat (possibly original, from a private
collection. [Image Credit: Debra's Dolls-Antique and Collectable Dolls]
Much skill and time were bestowed on the making of
wax dolls to attain a high degree of perfection, but labor was cheap
and plentiful. The number of people employed in the manufacture of
antique dolls was astonishing, and in large establishments nearly the whole
work took place on the premises, every person having his or her own
particular work or specialty. In some of these establishments in
London thousands of dolls were turned out in the course of a week.
At least twenty different people were employed in making a single
antique doll, not counting those who manufactured the raw material -- the
wax, the eyes, the cotton, and the hair.
Large Early Poured Wax Doll: Antique doll features a slightly turned head with blue glass eyes, open mouth and tongue, inserted eyebrows and long brown wig, on a cloth body with wax lower arms and legs and wearing a white cotton dress, underclothes, socks and shoes, 28in tall. [Image credit: www.bonhams.com]
Wax modelers would model a doll head in wax or clay,
and then use plaster to create a mold from the head. Next, one
person would make the head by pouring melted wax into the mold or
cast of the head and features. Another person's entire work was to
put in the eyes; with a sharp knife they cut away the wax for the
sockets. After properly adjusting the glass eyes, they fastened
them in by pouring a little melted wax in the skull, which when it
came in contact with the glass, cooled, and kept the eyes in place.
These little glass eyes were imported from Germany by the thousands
in assorted sizes and packed in large cases. The more expensive
antique dolls had hand-modeled eyelids and eyebrows.
After the eyes were inserted in the head, the next
point was the putting on the hair. This was an important
consideration with the manufacturer, being the most costly part of
the whole toy. In many of the best dolls the hair and its insertion
cost as much as the rest of the head put together. No doll would be
considered perfect unless its hair were natural and could be combed
and brushed without injury. This work was all done by women. The
doll head in be adorned was placed on a block, the operator holding
in her left hand the hair, carefully combed and cut to a uniform
length; in her right hand a dull knife, with which she lifted a
small piece of wax, and pushed the hair underneath. When she
finished this process, by inserting only two or three hairs at a
time, she took an iron roller and gently but firmly rubbed it over
the surface, thus fastening the hair securely on the head. This was
a very tedious process, and only used in the more expensive dolls.
In the less expensive or composition antique dolls, a deep groove was cut
completely through the skull, along the top of the head where the
parting was to be, and the uncurled ends of the ringlets were pushed
in with a blunt knife, and then fastened down with paste.
Black hair was almost entirely human, and was
imported from Europe, while the flaxen locks were made of mohair.
This material was specially manufactured for the purpose, and one
manufacture in London supplied nearly all the locks for the English
as well as the best French and German makers. The mohair was of a
remarkably soft and silky texture, and was sold in little bundles of
Having finished with the doll's head, the body was
next. A number of people were employed, chiefly women, assisted by
the younger members of their families, each of whom took one special
part. The manufacturer gave out a measured amount of cotton, and he
knew to an inch how much material each dozen dolls would require
according to their size. The body-maker took it home, and
accomplished the work in the following manner: one person cut out
the body of the doll, another sewed it, a third stuffed in the
sawdust, and a fourth made the joints. In this way a family would
produce many dozen in a week. The payment of this work was by the
The arms formed another branch of this manufacturing
process, which other people were almost exclusively employed.
Except for the very commonest class of dolls, the arms were made
of kid below the elbow and cotton above; and in every case there was
an attempt at fingers, although their number were not always
correct. The price paid to complete these arms was incredibly small.
The work-woman furnished the kid, cotton, and sawdust; for larger
arms of approximately six inches long they received 6 1/2d. (about
thirteen cents). Small arms for the cheaper dolls were worth only 1
1/2d. (three cents) a dozen pairs. In view of the fact that these
workers furnished the material for the arms, this was not a well
paying job, but was one to be done in the home.
Putting the head and arms together was the last
process. This was done with glue and thread. The doll was then
wrapped in tissue-paper, and ready for the market. Most of the wax
dolls made in England were exported, many to America. In 1850,
Tuttles Emporium advertised “beautifully dressed” wax dolls from 50
cents to 10 dollars; “undressed” wax dolls from 25 cents to 8
dollars. In 1866, R.H. Macy & Co. in New York announced the arrival
of “3,000 Fine Wax Dolls” just imported for the holiday trade.
Bonhams (www.bonhams.com) hold four specialist antique toy and doll auctions a year, which cater for all tastes in the world of vintage Toys, Trains, Dolls, Teddy Bears, Doll Houses and Miniatures, Rocking Horses, Juvenalia, Automata, Lead Soldiers and Figures.