The Amish Doll
By Helaine Fendelman AAA and
Marilyn Kowaleski, South Pointe Antiques, Adamstown, Pa.
There are people who look at a child’s tattered cloth doll and think of it as a rag. Others look at the relatively shapeless cloth form and see a dearly cherished memento of childhood. And then there are the doll collectors who love the “babies” no matter how they look.
Since cloth dolls are fragile and were often handled, there are few examples still in existence from the earlier than the latter part of the 19th Century. One of the small groups of those beloved creatures, highly prized today, is the rag dolls made by the Amish people for their children.
The Amish are a religious sect characterized by their hard-working and community-minded spirit. These people shunned any fancy trappings of dress of lifestyle and, therefore, were often referred to as “the plain people”. Some of their religious beliefs, and even their ways of life, were expressed in the toys they made for their children.
One of the characteristics of these dolls is that they are faceless. It was written in the Bible, in the Book of Deuteronomy, that one was not allowed to produce any human images or likenesses. The Amish believed in this edict and refused to allow dolls to be made which resembled human beings. In some Amish homes, even faceless dolls were feared and forbidden because they were thought to project the human image. One of our Amish friends can remember her “baby” being merely a piece of wood wrapped in a blanket because her mother would not allow her to play with a doll having any type of human form.
Clothes are another way of distinguishing the Amish doll. The fabrics used are similar to those that the people themselves wore: cottons, linens, muslins and wools in muted, monochromatic colors reflecting the humble nature of the people. Worn old dresses and shirts were often taken apart, the material re-fashioned and a doll made. Since very few toys were allowed in an Amish household, boys and girls alike played with dolls; and both boy and girl dolls were made. It is not unusual to see a male Amish doll wearing a dress rather than trousers and a shirt. Very young Amish boys oftentimes wore dresses, so their dolls were dressed as they were. When boy dolls were made wearing trousers, their costumes were topped by a black wool cutaway-style jacket called a “mutza”. Today, all these black coats are known as mutzahs.
When one is closely examining a doll, it is common to see four or five layers of cloth on the head or body of one doll. When a doll would become too dirty or worn beyond recognition, not only the head, but also its arms and legs, would be completely covered with a new old muslin cloth.
Most old Amish dolls were made with a tightly stuffed cotton filling, allowing no separation between the cotton. Sometimes old rags were used to stuff the body. Straw was seldom used and polyester filling is definitely indicative of a new doll. If the doll maker wanted his or her creation to have a more rigid body, then he or she would place a stick inside the stuffing. Dolls from the late 19th Century are usually tall, 22” to 24” in height. Also, they tend to have stitching at both the elbow and knee joints to allow flexibility of movement.
Both sewing machine and hand-stitching were used to finish the older doll. In both instances, however, work that is newly done can be detected if one closely examines the doll, looking for wear and use indicating the doll’s being a plaything and loved.
There are few known makers of Amish dolls. Since the doll maker was usually just satisfying a personal desire, he or she did not think to record what they were doing for future generations. Lizzie Lapp is an exception. She lived on Route 340, near Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, from 1860 to 1932. She produced dolls both for her own community and for sale to tourists. A relative of hers even recalls Lizzie shipping her dolls to
California in the early 1920’s. Her dolls are best recognized by the hourglass shape to their bodies rather than the more commonly seen rounded body forms.
Most Amish women in Pennsylvania and the Midwest have been making rag dolls for their children for generations. In the past few years, however, this craft has turned into a cottage industry so that the dolls are sold to the many tourists visiting their communities, and even shipped to museum and shops throughout the country. But, a doll that was sewn together years ago will show a mellowness of age and the wear and tear of having been played with lovingly and enjoyed.
Good quality late 19th and early 20th Century Amish dolls are difficult to find because few were made. In addition, not many survived; most were destroyed through play or negligence. In the early 1980’s, there was an initial burst of interest in the dolls as art objects. Prices at that time ranged from $20 to the low $100’s. Today’s replacement costs are in the $1,000 range with those having age and charm selling for more. When these dolls began to gain in popularity, a number of enterprising people began reproducing them, hoping to profit from duping the public into thinking these newly created “old” dolls were in fact old. When the reproductions turned up in huge quantities, interest and prices immediately decreased, except within the dealer/collector community where the older Amish dolls are still prized.