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Look What I can Do Mommy! Mechanical Dolls of Composition

Updated: Jun 20, 2022

There is an interesting book titled "Made to Play House" by Miriam Formanek-Brunell that discusses the commercialization of the toy industry from 1830-1930. It is a study of the sociological influences on the manufacture of dolls, rather than just the history of doll making. ln one chapter, titled Masculinity, Technology and the Doll Economy, the author discusses men's admiration of machines and how they brought that interest to the manufacturing of dolls.


Princess Elizabeth Doll history

Source: March 2016 • Antique Doll Collector, Pages 46-51


The chapter discusses the differences between dolls that were designed by men and those designed by women during the early part of the twentieth century. The author points out that when a woman was the designer, the doll was usually soft and cuddly, had the feel of a baby in one's arms and needed only childhood imagination to make it come alive during play. Indeed, there was no need for any type of automation in the babies designed by Martha Chase, Ella Smith, Julia Jones Beecher and Jessie McCutcheon Raleigh.

However we cannot leave John Barton Gruelle off this list of cuddly dolls. He gave his daughter, Marcella, a dusty, faceless rag doll which was found in an attic. He drew a face on the doll and named her Raggedy Ann. Marcella played with the doll so much, Gruelle wanted other children to have one too. Sadly Marcella died at age 13, but Johnny's Raggedy Ann became a major source of revenue for the Volland Company, who produced his doll.

Little boys grew up playing with toys like trucks, planes, balls, and rocking horses that all had motion involved in the play activity. As men, involved in the manufachtre of dolls, it seems, they preferred to make dolls that had some life-like animation to enhance the play value! I cannot find fault with that. 1n my opinion this has to do with the basic differences between men and women.

Ideal mechanical composition doll
Composition Ideal baby with sleep, flirty eyes. Courtesy Theriault's.

On one hand you have the gatherers and nurturers. Women have diverse awareness and can focus on multiple tasks at once, easily moving between cooking, cleaning, and tending to children. They are more connected to their emotions and easily dream and pretend. Men have the hunter-warrior instincts and are more single-focused. They are inclined to be producers and protectors. For them action and reality are favored over emotion. ot surprisingly the "doll like" playthings for the boys of today are called "action figures". So it is understandable that men were interested in adding mechanics to dolls to give them more life-like attributes for play! There is no right or wrong here, just the wonderful differences in the approach to manufacturing toys for children. There is, of course, a need for both of these aspects in our doll world.

The dolls I chose for this article will showcase the mechanical influence on the doll world. They all do something that adds to the realism of play: sleep, walk, cry, drink, wet, flirt, crawl, talk, dance, sing and whistle.

The eye mechanism is an early addition to doll mechanics. The eyes can make the subject sleep, flirt and even wink. This is most often accomplished by the use of a lead weight on a metal crossbar. The eyes move on a pivot as the doll is moved from an upright to a supine position. Flirty eyes have an additional side to side motion.

Another of the inost common mechanical additions to dolls is the ability to emit sound. This ranges from the simple diaphragm voice boxes in mama dolls, to pull string mama and papa vocals, to the rare Edison's phonograph doll and the Webber singing doll, which were marvels of their time.

Thomas Edison's Talking Doll of 1890 set an early milestone in the history and technology of recorded sound.

It was the world's first recorded-audio product designed, manufactured, and sold for home entertainment. It had a rough start, however. The talking doll venture was a costly failure for Edison and his investors, who ceased sales after only a few months on the market. Production began in February 1890 and ceased in early May 1890.


While developing his original tinfoil phonograph, Thomas Edison wrote, "I propose to apply the phonograph principle to make dolls speak, sing, cry and make various sounds." Mounting complaints about breakage during shipment, performance defects, and returned dolls forced the decision to halt production after only three months. Needless to say this is an extremely rare doll.

Averill mama-type composition doll
Dolly Reckard by Averill was a mama-type doll with the records placed inside the cloth body. Courtesy The Strong, National Museum of Play

The Webber singing doll, patented circa 1882, had a bellows mechanism in torso which operated by pushing an exterior wooden button, causing the doll to "sing". The mechanism was fashioned after a reed organ. The doll's shoulder-head was made of composition attached to a stuffed cloth body which held the mechanism.

Goodwin's Mechanical Walking Doll
Goodwin's Walking Doll uses a clockwork motor under the doll carriage to drive the wheels and make it appear as if the doll is walking. This rare doll was sold by

In 1922, the Averill Manufacturing Co. issued a talking doll, using the same kind of mechanism already in use by the K & K Toy Company. Their doll was called Dolly Reckord and another similar doll called Mae Starr was issued by Effanbee. These mama-type dolls had celluloid covered cardboard cylindrical records placed inside the doll's cloth body. These records were timed to play only on machines licensed by the Universal Talking Toys Company of Newark N.J., who manufactured the records.

In the back of both Mae Starr and Dolly Reckord is a lever that engages the needle oi the player on to the celluloid cylinder. The speaker faced the front of the doll and on the side there was a "key" to wind the phonograph mechanism.

The Madame Hendren Dolly Reckord dolls were not sold in stores according to the authors of "Phonograph Dolls that Talk and Sing" but were awarded as premiums for various sales of products or for subscribing to newspapers or magazines.

Ives Crawling Baby doll
Ives Crawling Baby has an internal clockwork mechanism which allows a realistic crawling motion. Courtesy Bertoia Auctions.

Hearing these dolls speak is definitely a fun experience. Depending on the tightness of the wound spring she speaks fast and in a high squeaky voice that gets lower and slower as it continues to unwind. There were 20 different nursery rhymes/prayer recitations/songs on the cylinders available for these dolls and although they are slightly different in appearance they are interchangeable between the Mae and Dolly dolls.

Interestingly there is an. audio file on the Internet of an Edison doll's voice from a restored wax record, and, to me, it sounds exactly like the voice on the records played on the Mae and Dolly dolls!

Goodwin's Patent Walking Doll, Circa 1870, is an early American toy, manufactured by Stevens & Brown of Cromwell, Connecticut. She measures approximately 12" from the front of the front wheel to the back of the doll, 10 1/2" tall, and about 5 1/2" wide. The doll is connected to the carriage via two metal tu bes in her body that receive the carriage's handle. It works using a clockwork motor under the carriage to drive the cast iron wheels. This causes the doll to "walk" but she is actually being pulled along by the carriage. The doll has a composite pressed linen molded head manufactured by Weigand with molded composition arms. Her hands fit over the handles of the carriage so that she can hold on to it.

mechanical Carnivals doll
Carnivals dolls that wet themselves when the legs are lifted. Inset: Metal plumbing system releases water when the doll's leg is lifted.

Edward Ives, the founder of Ives Manufacturing Company, was a descendent of the Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford. They began by making paper dolls whose limbs moved in response to hot air. Their clockwork toys covered a wide range and included toy trains. The company was taken over by Lionel during the depression, but the name Ives remained until 1931. Ives made this crawling baby, c. 1880. She is 12 inches in length, with a composition head and a cloth body that encloses the mechanism. She has a realistic crawling motion.

Measuring 28 inches these carnival-type composition dolls have the an innovative metal plumbing system that allows for a wetting featme. The boy has one of the usual faces found on carnival dolls, the other has a rarer baby face.

The mechanism in the lower body consists of a metal reservoir and a spout that opens when the dolls leg is lifted. (I know you are laughing right about now.) The top of the water is unscrewed and filled with water. When the doll's legs are both down the system closes off the outlet. There is a patent number visible on one of the container's screw caps. I was amazed when I looked through the patent library and saw how many doll inventions have been patented. Doll manufacture was a lucrative business and companies and individuals wanted to protect their ideas and inventions.

Mechanical doll
What would they think of next! Her eyes light up via a battery.

Composition dolls and water do not mix well, so wetting dolls are uncommon in this medium. This innovative mechanism allows the water to be contained within a metal cylinder and a wooden box The doll would however wet whatever it was standing or sitting over when the valve was open. I expect that many moms added cloth diapers and rubber pants to their child's doll wardrobe.

mechanical wax doll
A rare mechanical wax over paper mache baby opens her mouth to receive a bottle. Courtesy Mary White.

One of my favorite carnival dolls is this 1920's sweet girl with her deeply molded hair and blue ribbon with side box. She is a coquette-type and great big 29 inches tall. She has light up eye balls that still work! She is in very good condition and possibly may have been too scary when lit up for a child to play with. She may even have been a store display rather than a prize won at a local fair. Coquette has a flange head on a cloth body stuffed with straw and has composition hands. She has a pleasing and pretty expression when

unlit. Her wires extend out from under her neck and through the cloth and operate by battery. She is marked Electra on her neck-which surely fits her!

This wonderful and rare mechanical wax over papier mache baby doll with bottle and original dress is appearing courtesy of Mary White.

She has blue glass eyes, hand painted baby-like hair and wears her original sateen and lace dress. She has a mechanism in the body to open and close her mouth when her body is pushed. A white blown glass bottle that fits in her mouth is held around her neck with a red ribbon. She is about 13-1 /2" tall with composition lower legs and arms and a gauze like body. When her mouth opens you can actually see the doll's tongue painted on the inside.

Ready to tee off. A button on the left side causes their arms to swing.

A pair of all original twins are each 14 inches tall with metal golf clubs attached at their hands by metal rods that travel through the arms and into the body. There is a metal push button on the left side that make the arms swing as if putting a golf ball. These guys are charming with their painted side glancing eyes and short legged pants and winsome smiles. The manufacturer is unknown, but they are very rare dolls.

A little 12-inch doll with a composition head and arms and her original wig and clothing has a wind-up mechanism that allows her to rock her baby doll side to side. She has metal shaped high heeled boots attached to solid wood legs, and a composition body with wire upper arms and metal hands .. This little Mommy has painted eyes and a rose bud closed mouth. The baby is all composition and measures under 1.5 inches.

Wind-up walking dolls are numerous including ramp walkers, skaters, and those that had leg mechanisms that allowed a waking-like action. Walking being a very human activity, it makes sense that this was one thing that dolls could do well.

mechanical antique doll
A 12-inch doll can rock her baby side to side.

This cute baby has the usual large metal shoes that give stability as the mechanism propels him forward on a flat surface. His legs and body are all metal, only his lower arms and shoulder head are composition. Composition wind up walkers are still plentiful for collectors searching to add one.

A simple movement that surprises and delights young children is the jack-in­the box. This is a very early toy, possibly be 1860s or 1870s. Most toys of this age do not have arms, but this guy has them along with expressive hand sculpts.

He measures almost 11" tall and is all original and very colorful; he even has his original hair! The lid is missing so he can stay out of his box for our enjoyment!

There are several versions of whistlers that were made in composition. This little soldier still whistles by bouncing him on the hand to compress the springs in his legs and force air through his tummy. The air is pushed out with a whistle sound.

composition mechanical walker doll
Composition walkers are plentiful on the market.

These whistlers come with both open and closed mouths and can be easily dressed and undressed. Examples of similar dolls came with a harmonica and appear to play the instrument when the springs are bounced.

One thing I have observed is that the whistlers are all boys - at least those that I have seen. Perhaps boys whistle more than girls, or maybe th.ey just whistle at girls. Just wondering, why they are all boys?

antique mechanical toy
An early toy, this jack-in-the box never fails to amuse children. Courtesy of Craig Rosborough.

mechanical composition doll
Dolls that whistle or play a harmonica seem to always be boys.

composition crawls doll
By manipulating the doll forward the doll crawls. Unfortunately she is limited to a crawling position.

Crawling is another childhood activity and there are dolls that wind up and crawl and those that need manual intervention to accomplish the feat! Shown here is crawling baby with a character face similar to Louis Amberg dolls. Her body is in a permanent crawl position, so that is pretty much all she can do. As you manipulate her forward the left leg and right arm move together and visa-versa. More than any other doll in this article she illustrates the fact

that occasionally the final product is not as play-worthy as it originally sounded to the designer.

Composition mechanical doll
Swing and swap doll, a precursor to the bobble­head doll.

This doll would have been very hard to dress and undress for a child, and clothing choices would easily interfere with the mechanics of crawling. However, she is a fun and

unusual doll for collectors to enjoy.

Composition mechanical toy
Circa 1920 pull toy.

An example of a pendulum toy is this 12" Bobbi­Mae swing & sway doll, manufactured by the Wondercraft Company of NY. She was inspired by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra whose tag line, was "Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye," one of the most famous orchestras of the Big Band Era. This type of doll is the precursor to today's bobble-head dolls.

Here is a sweet little girl (circa 1920) pull toy, attached to the vehicle at her hands and lower torso. She has cork stuffed legs and arms and moves back and forth as the cart moves forward. Her cloth hands were folded and attached

are replaced, but her original tattered clothing is wood plugs in her head are for tying on her hair ribbons. She was surely a loved play thing judging be her condition. Her hair ties and shoes are replaced, but her original tattered clothing is still under her replaced vintage dress. Her cloth body is in fragile condition.

Snookums, a comic character from The Newlyweds newspaper comic strip is made of composition and mounted on a wooden base. Wires extend from her hands and there is an

.lttached toy top that spins on a rope. The doll is stationary.

1 comentário

Sharon Weintraub
Sharon Weintraub
09 de nov. de 2022

The doll rocking the baby is a carnival doll by Zaiden Toy Works called "Nurse Girl." Yours appears to have lost her nurse's cap and apron and someone added the felt bonnet. You can read more about Zaiden's line of mechanical dolls on my blog:

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