Friday, July 4, 2014

Before Barbie, There Was Patsy

by Pamela S. Meyers

Happy Fourth of July everyone!

While researching toy dolls of the 1920’s, to see what was popular back then, I was reminded of a porcelain head doll that had been handed down through my family and had to be from the late 1800s or early 1900s. She came complete with a small trunk of handmade clothes of her era. When I was around eight or nine years old, my mother told me I could play with her, but I needed to be very careful to not drop her because her head would break.

This is similar to the doll I broke
Of course that’s exactly what happened.

My heart crushed as I saw her beautiful face shatter into what seemed a bazillion pieces. At the time, I was more afraid of my mother’s ire than regret over breaking such a treasure, but now I realize how much my mom must have berated herself for giving me the doll. It makes me wonder how often were little girls given such fragile dolls to play with back in the day. I’m sure I wasn’t the first child to break a doll's head.

According to Collectors Weekly’s website, in the 1920s, doll makers were using a composite material that Lazarus Reichmann developed. The substance was inexpensive and flexible for molding doll bodies. And little girls couldn’t break it, which had to be a plus.

At that time, the Patsy Doll became the rage, much the way Cabbage Patch dolls and Barbies shot up the popularity list in more recent times. Does anyone remember the long lines of shoppers waiting to purchase a Cabbage Patch doll? According to several websites, the Patsy doll, made by the Effanbee Doll Company, is one of the most popular dolls ever made. She came in a variety of sizes, each size with its own name. The original design was that of a typical three-year-old girl.
The Patsy Doll

Patsy was one of the first dolls to have her own wardrobe of outfits and accessories, along with her own newsletter. 

When World War II began, the doll's popularity declined and Effanbee nearly went out of business, until the company was purchased by Noma Electric, and Patsy continued to live on.

Nowadays, the Robert Tonner Doll Company owns the rights to Patsy and she's still around some 90 years after she first made the scene.

Reading all this information, brought to mind my Betsy Wetsy doll which I still have. Betsy could be fed a real bottle and a moment later she'd wet her diaper. As I recall, I was only allowed to feed her water. :-)

Betsy Wetsy
The years have been unkind to Betsy and she has lost both her legs. Well, I actually still have them. They just aren't attached to Betsy anymore. Some time ago, my mom surprised me at Christmas with Betsy. She'd given her a makeover, complete with a new dress, bonnet, and booties that she had made (at the time the legs were still attached). She now sits on a shelf in my bedroom, her full skirt covering the space where her legs should be.

Your turn! Do you have any antique dolls handed down in your family? Are you a doll collector? Please share!

A native of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, author Pamela S. Meyers lives in suburban Chicago, an hour's drive away from her hometown which she visits often to dig into its historical legacy. Her novels include Thyme for Love, and Love Will Find a Way,  contemporary romantic mysteries and her 1933 historical romance, Love Finds You in Lake Geneva,Wisconsin, released in April, 2013. She can often be found speaking at events around Lake Geneva or nosing in microfilms and historical records about Wisconsin and other Midwestern spots for new story ideas.


  1. I don't collect dolls but I do have my grandmothers baby doll for when she was a baby. She was born 1912 and there was 14 siblings. 12 of those were sisters. So, it was a treasure for her to have her own doll. It's only about 3 inches tall and she had kept wrapped up in a box all of those years she was alive. I was honored when she gave it to me.
    Great post! Thanks for the memories of Grandma. She was a treasure to me.

  2. Fun Post, Pamela. I still have so many of my dolls from my childhood. Unfortunately, I don't have anything from my mom or Grandmother. I wish I had.

  3. My mom had two porcelain-headed dolls that she and her sister had from her childhood (in the 1920s). She had them displayed when my sister and I were little, and we never played with them. I remember they smelled musty! And their heads had cracks running all over them. My mom gave them to me and I gave them to my daughter. I think she still has them somewhere!

  4. I am so envious! I remember only 2 of my dolls. One was a Madame Alexander I named Judy for some reason. Don't know what happened to her. I remember a baby doll I got my 9th Christmas, but she too disappeared. I still love dolls and these you've shown brought back great memories. I have two dolls now. One is the one I bought for my granddaugters to play with here. It's still in a basket with a blanket wrapped around her just waiting for great-granddaughter to come play with her. The other is a Wendy Lawton's rendition of Jo from Little Women. She has a place of honor on the table displaying my music boxes.

    Oh, and I had a porcelain head doll that a friend made for me about 30 years ago. The doll was the size of a newborn, and I loved that doll, but I dropped something and it fell on her and smashed her face. I cried because it couldn't be repaired. I still have her dressed in her gown and stored in a plastic box. Don't have the heart to get rid of her.

  5. I had 3 brothers and also grew up in Nigeria as an MK so most of my dolls were hand-me-downs. I do remember getting a Barbie doll when in the US one time. I loved all the outfits. I also had paper dolls and liked cutting out all the outfits and bending over the tabs to fit on the dolls. Thanks for your post. sharon wileygreen1ATyahooDOTcom

  6. When I was 4 yrs old, my 5 yr old sister and I each received a Lulu doll for Christmas. It was composite and virtually indestructible except I don't think they tested it for sister jealousy before marketing it because the summer after receiving it is when Lulu lost an arm.

    As someone who believed I had usurped all due attention by being born, my sister couldn't stand it when I had something and she didn't. That explains why Santa had brought matching Lulu dolls. It also explains why my sister was incensed when she couldn't find her Lulu doll while I sat cuddling mine. She declared that I had taken hers and grabbed one arm of my Lulu. I grabbed the other as the doll slipped from my arms. And the tug-of-Lulu war was on. Back and forth we pulled with each of us shouting, "It's mine!"

    Then with a awful ripping sound followed by a thud, my sister landed on the floor with a Lulu arm in her hand. I was horrified. As I cradled my beautiful baby, my sister made a sound. She tossed the small limb at me and then reached under our bed. A moment later, she gave a triumphant yell and rose holding the 2nd Lulu doll. "Yup, that's yours. I found mine."

    Mom tried to fix my Lulu, but the rubbery vinyl-like material only ripped more when sewn. The available tape at the time wouldn't hold, so my doll remained with only one arm.

    The following Christmas I was given the first of a succession of teddy bears. I loved them until their fur fell off - and then some. For whatever reason, my sister didn't like bears. Phew.

  7. Oh my goodness, Anita Mae. I'm almost glad I escaped sibling rivalry being an only child.

  8. Being an only child myself, dolls were always so important to me. I loved them like real babies and treated them so. I didn't have a Patsy but I loved every doll I ever had.

    mauback55 at gmail dot com

  9. The first doll I remember having was Betsy McCall. She had jointed arms and legs. My mom sewed all kinds of cute clothing for her. I was a big horse fan, and kept putting the doll on my plastic horses and breaking her legs. :( Mom kept buying me a new one until I outgrew dolls.

  10. Hello Pamela. Good post. I have one of the porcelain lady dolls that hangs on my wall. It has it's original clothes. A long dress of thin material of little flowers in the material , and a matching bonnet with a cloth brim all around the print bonnet in a matching print except for the brim. The clothes are yellowed by age, so think it was probably white. The dress is floor length with a long slip, or under skirt and knee length bloomers.feet and legs to knees and arms and hands to forearm are made os a different stuff . It does not have the shine and smoothness of the head. It is beautiful and given to my husband at 2 or 3 . He was born in 1919. so would be about the mid- nineties now. it has been hanging on the wall many years. I also had a lady bed-doll gotten when I was a child, after a great-aunt and her grand-daughter died together. The great aunt's sister sent a large box of dolls and clothes to my dad because he had a house-full of girls. I was the right age. I treasured. She lay on my bed and sometimes I would sit on the bed and play with her. When I was 12 we had to move from Texas to Ok. Dad had gone ahead and gotten a job, We could only take suitcases for we had to ride a bus, so our stuff was stored in Granddad's loft of his barn. When dad went for it later, a lot had been stolen. It would be worth big dollars, but of course I would never have sold it. I do have a doll collection but no really old dolls. Yes, I remember the Betsy Wetsy dolls. And, I lived in a tiny town with very few children so all I heard about the Cabbage Patch dolls and my daughter would tell me about the fights of women over these dolls. But several of my grandchildren had them. I have several of them in my dolls, bought at Garage sales. Really enjoyed this post. Thanks Pamela. Maxie > mac262(at)me(dot)com <