- Written by Doris Montag Doris Montag
The oldest known paper-doll card was printed around 1650 with two female figures and numerous dresses, headgear, hairstyles, and accessories.
In the 1700s, paper dolls, jointed and mounted on sticks, were called “pantins,” meaning dancing, or “jumping-jack puppets.” These were among the first mechanical toys.
The early paper dolls were printed in an outfit rather than having removable clothes. By the mid-1700s, paper dolls were wearing underwear for changeable wardrobes. These were held on with sealing wax. The advent of lithography in 1796 reduced the cost of printing, resulting in the production of elaborate outfits.
In 1810, S. & J. Fuller Publishers of London produced Little Fanny, the earliest paper doll made for children. It came with a book by the same name. Fanny acted out the scenes with costume changes as the story unfolded.
In 1812 the first American-manufactured paper doll acted out The History and Adventures of Little Henry by J. Belcher. The purpose was to teach the story’s morality lesson by acting it out.
The first celebrity paper doll was modeled after Swedish ballet star Marie Taglioni in 1835. In 1840, Godey’s Lady’s Book included paper dolls. By the mid-century, newspapers and magazines printed paper dolls and their accessories as promotional items.
Popular figures from entertainment, comics, storybooks, royalty, and history
helped sell clothes. They were also used as advertising cards handed out at the store or inserted into a product’s packaging. Paper dolls enhanced sales for coffee, flour, chocolate, sewing machines, nail polish, underwear, fabrics, cars, soaps, and threads.
Some sponsors required that you send in a label for the doll. For decades, companies like Pillsbury Flour, Hood’s Sarsaparilla, Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour, and McLaughlin’s Brand Coffee included paper dolls with their products.
Kewpies, created by Rose O’Neill, began as paper dolls before they became porcelain dolls. The Betsy McCall paper doll made her debut in the McCall’s magazine in 1904.
In 1828, McLoughlin Brothers became the largest paper-doll manufacturer in the world, selling ornate, woodblock-printed paper dolls. McLoughlin created the tabbed paper-doll clothing to hold outfits onto the dolls. In the 1920s, McLoughlin Brothers was sold to Milton Bradley.
In more recent times, dolls have been made of felt, magnetic, or cling materials to hold the clothes to the doll.
Typically, women of leisure were featured in the paper-doll form. Brides and comic book characters were common figures. Paper dolls encouraged children’s imaginations, and kids of all economic levels could take part.
The Great Depression proved to be a boon for paper dolls because they were inexpensive or could be handmade at home. Ingenious mothers taught children to make “catalog dolls” from free department-store catalogs. Children would carefully cut around a model and then find clothing that could fit the model.
Kids also traced images from books or created their own figures and outfits. Paper dolls were well established as a cheap way for young people to play make- believe.
The Golden Age of Paper Dolls was during the 1930s-1950s. Paper dolls from different decades reflect the idealized role of women in each period. As women entered the workforce, paper-doll manufacturers adapted with dolls’ wardrobes, from college student to movie star to World War II WAC.
The first Black paper doll on the mass market was Torchy, a character in the Heartbeats comic series, in 1950. Jackie Ormes, the cartoonist behind Heartbeats, addressed difficult topics, such as racial and social injustice, in the series. She put Torchy into modern, stylish clothes and historical costumes.
As the times changed, career and leisure wardrobes kept pace with active women, but the two-dimensional doll fell out of favor after 1960.
The blame for this decline is often put on Mattel’s Barbie (1959), a full-figured doll. Barbie served the same make-believe purpose as paper dolls but had increased commercial opportunities. But that is another story!
Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.