Portraits by An Artist. The Great Depression Turned Artist Dewees Cochran into a Doll Maker
DEWEES COCHRAN dolls are commanding high prices in today's doll market and are coveted by many collectors. This American doll artist not only created art treasures but brought something unique to the doll world of the mid 1930s and for the next 45 years. She made Portrait dolls of specific children, Look-Alike dolls from her six basic American Children face types, five series of Grow-up dolls showing the same dolls at progressive ages, and many character dolls.
BY BETTY O'SULLIVAN. PHOTOGRAPHS BY QUENTIN O'SULLIVAN
Source: June/July 1995 • Doll Reader , Pages 68-72
Most big doll companies in America were making composition baby dolls dressed in organdy and ruffles. Dewees made realistic childlike dolls constructed of vultex and dressed like the young children who played with them. She produced her dolls on a modest scale with the help of a small staff in her own studios in New York City and in Norwich, Vermont.
Ella Dewees (pronounced D' wees) Cochran was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1892, the year before the Columbian Exposition at Chicago's World Fair. She was raised in the Philadelphia area in a wealthy family atmosphere and was educated in eastern schools. She loved to sew and tailored many of her own clothes. In her early years, she showed a great talent for art and studied here and abroad toward a career in that field.
Making dolls was the farthest thing from her mind for the first 4 2 years of her life. In 1924, she married a German writer, Paul Helbeck, whom she had met while both were taking a course in economics in Elsinor, Denmark. They were married at her family home in New Hope, Pennsylvania, but spent the next ten years in Munich and Salzburg, pursuing their separate careers; she as an artist, he as a writer. She became well-known as a sculptor and a water colorist. Also she gave art lectures as well as arranged European and American art exhibits.
With the stock market crash in 1929, their lives changed drastically Her father lost all his money, so her income from home stopped. Paul's income from his mother's estate in England was also wiped out. Early in 1934, Deweess father died and the couple returned to the states to live. The country was in the Great Depression and Paul could not find work. Fine art would not pay the rent, so Dewees decided to try her hand at creating dolls.
Her first efforts were a pair of longlegged black cloth dolls she named Topsy and Turvey. They had appliqued features, large embroidered eyes, and very flexible limbs. She also made bodies for some German china heads and dressed them in elegant early-American costumes. She took both types of dolls to nearby gift and antique stores and was given several orders. Then she went to New York City where she received orders from Saks Fifth Avenue and FAO Schwarz for their Christmas lines in 1934.
She was told by a Saks buyer that if she was really in earnest about making play dolls for children, she would have to make them more realistic. The buyer said that there was a growing tendency among par - ents of the day to guide their childrens imaginations and not to diston them with whims.ical images such as Topsy and Turvey.
The need for realism gave her the idea of making Portrait dolls - mirror images of their little owners. She would have to carve the heads out of wood, as she could not make portraits with cloth. The Portrait dolls would not only be for play, but also for keepsakes of childhood.
The idea caught on immediately. Her first orders were for the two daughters of Irving Berlin. Additional orders followed so quickly that she and her husband moved to New York City to be closer to the bustle of business. She set up her studio in the smart shopping district and continued making dolls there for the next 25 years.
Her earliest Portrait dolls were carved out of balsa wood. Carving each little head, however, took too much time. She searched for a quicker method. She thought if she could sculpt the basic head models, and then cast the heads she could shorten her process. She had to find a good casting compound. One day, while perusing the New York newspapers, Paul discovered a new product - plastic wood. Dewees found this perfect for her needs. It was very strong and now she could make basic molds from her carvings, cast them in plastic wood, and personalize them for her Portraits. She could also cast the bodies and limbs from the same material and no longer had to make cloth bodies.
She noticed that the children's head she had sculpted for her dolls fell into various categories of shapes and she was reminded of the research done in Europe on the varied facial types of adults. She decided to find the basic types of American children's faces for her doll making. She went through thousands of pictures of children in the photograph collection at New York City's 42nd Street Library and at the three children's modeling agencies in the city She finally settled on six basic face types.
The Effanbee Company was interested in her research. In 1936, she signed a threeyear contract with them to make four of her American Children series of a high-grade composition material and 50,000 were made. They were 21 inches tall.
With this contract, Dewees and Paul thought doll making was the answer to their financial problems. Paul returned to Europe alone to continue his writing career, expecting Dewees to join him as soon as her doll production could proceed without her. That day never came. Although they both had long lives, they never saw each other again, separated by World War II as well as their divergent careers. Paul died in 1981.
During the Effanbee years, Dewees continued to make her own dolls. She made doll models of each of her six head types and then plaster of paris molds of each of them from which she made plastic wood castings. Now she could select the type of head she needed for each of her portrait orders. While the casting was still soft, she could carve further details on each doll head to enhance the resemblance to the child she was portraying.
In addition, she discovered that she could make a less expensive Look-Alike doll by using the unaltered basic type doll head and adding the right coloring, wig, and clothing to match the child.
Dewees's clients expected perfection and she paid close attention to every de tail in her doll making. She made the correct body type for each age child she was portraying. Most doll makers made their doll hand with several of the fingers molded together. No so Dewees. She made her doll hands with separated fin gers that could even fit into tiny gloves.
She learned the art of making good doll wigs from a toupee maker, and often put human hair eyelashes on her dolls. She designed all of her doll clothing her self, in the latest children's fashions ol the well-to-do. She even figured out how to make hand-stitched leather doll shoes
Dewees's innovative approach to doll making made natural news stories and, from the beginning, she had nationwide publicity in newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and even three movie shorts by Paramount Pictures. The high point was the cover of Life magazine on April 3, 1939, which showed a little girl holding her Look-Alike doll.
World War II brought an abrupt halt to all doll making as the needed materials went to the war effort for the next four years. Dewees found work in the advertising art field for the duration but returned to her dolls as soon as the materials were back on the market.
After the war, she began using latex but soon discovered vultex, an improved latex with clay added to the formula. She used vultex for the rest of her doll making career. Her Look-Alikes and character dolls sold for $45 and $65 each.
In 1952, she introduced her Grow-up series. First came five-year-old Susan Stormalong. Dewees was a little melancholy after Christmas when all her doll orders had been shipped out and decided to make a doll just for herself in the image of the child that she would never have. She nicknamed her Stormy. A new Stormy would be made each Christmas "growing up" to age seven, then 11, 16, and then 20.
Stormy had red hair, but many of Dewees's customers wanted blondes or brunettes, so she made blonde Angela Appleseed and brunette Belinda Bunyan, also representing the five growing up stages. The boys, Peter Ponsette, a blonde, and Jeffery Jones, a brunette, were only made at ages five, 14, and 23. Dewees made the Grow-ups from 1952 to 1958 and sold them for $25 to $35 each.
In 1960, when she was 68, she closed her two shops in the east and accepted a scholarship to Villa Montalvo near San Jose, California, to write her autobiography titled As If They Might Speak (Paperweight Press, 1979). For the next 20 years, she continued to support herself making her dolls in her small workshop there.
Dewees was a charter member of the National Institute of American Doll Artists, Inc. (NIADA) and served as president for two years. She was a Member at Large of the United Federation of Doll Clubs, Inc. (UFDC) and attended many national and regional conventions. She was an honorary member of the Doll Collectors Club of America and was listed in several Who'.s Who of American Artists volumes.
In 1980, with the help of Carol Lynn Hutton, Dewees formed the Dewees Cochran Foundation to inherit all of her belongings. This included the personal treasures of a lifetime as well as her dolls and doll molds. The plan called for the foundation to continue her work, but as a non-profit organization that would eventually make grants to artists and writers. The Dewees Cochran Founda tion, headquartered in Orwell, Vermont, is planning to re-issue some of Dewees's dolls from her own molds in porcelain and composition. Dewees died at the Brommer Manor Nursing Home, Santa Cruz, California, on May 7, 1991, at the age of 99. She had no surviving relatives.