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Sailor Dolls In War and Peace

Patriotism in times of war and children's fashion in peacetime influenced the appearance of 19th-century sailor dolls.


Antique wooden sailor dolls
Wooden fisherman dolls with heads made of a plaster type of composition. Sonneberg circa 1840. Height 2½ inches. Courtesy Constance King Collection.

Source: May 2001 • Doll Reader , Pages 58-62


Sailor suits were an in­ternational uniform for boys in the late 1800s. From the heir to the Russian throne to children play­ing in the park, a white or navy suit with a large, detachable col­lar was the ideal option for par­ents who wanted more freedom of movement for their children than was possible in the uncomfort­able, tight-fitting clothes of the period.

Not only did infants look appealing when dressed as sailors, but the outfits also could be washed easily, a rare fea­ture of boys' clothes at the time. While richer children were fitted at tailors' shops, there were simple patterns in many publications that any dressmaker could copy. Miniature suits for dolls were sold in toy shops, and there were dozens of diHerent patterns printed in the women's magazines that were com­mon in most households by 1880.

Antique wooden sailor doll
A rare, wooden-bodied dolls' house sailor with porcelain lower arm and leg sections and a porcelain shoulder head. German, circa 1855. Height 4½ Inches. Courtesy Constance King Collec­tion.

Leading dollmakers, such· as Jumeau in France and Kammer & Reinhardt in Germany, turned out their standard boy and girl dolls in sailor suits that were ef­fective, but relatively cheap to produce. Curiously, there were few portraits of adult sailors, and little effort was made by either maker to suggest reality. Instead, the standard dolly-faced bisques were idealized, as were the chil­dren, into a romantic, make-be­lieve world, where the sea was a benign backdrop for the charm­ing outfits in navy and white.


I know of no sailor dolls that were made before 1800, though there were some model figures, and chil­dren could learn about naval uniforms and characters through printed sheets. Sailors became heroes and role mod­els for boys during the Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815), when various naval engagements attracted international attention. After 1800, the German toy makers, always quick to respond to the market, turned their attention to the swashbuckling men of the sea, known in England and America as "Jack Tar."

Antique English mechanical sailor doll
This automated sailor "plays" his accordion while his foot taps the ground and he turns his head. He is operated by wires from the back. Eng­lish, circa 1930. Height 14 Inches. Cour­tesy Constance King Antiques.

South German woodcarvers in particular made neatly jointed figures with heads that were sometimes carved but more often made of a form of compo­sition or even plaster. The sub­stance was very fragile and crumbled away from the central core when damp, so that when groups of sailors are found, there are often several bodies without heads. Most of the small, wooden sailor dolls are jointed at the shoulder and hip with cord, but a few have wire or peg joints. Though some were only 2 inches high, the carving is good, in­evitably reminding collectors of the figures found in the botanical gar­dens or market scenes made in the Sonneberg region.

Some have molded Jack Tar hats with brims made of card. Such figures would have been familiar to children who lived near the sea as, from 1800 to around 1840, sailors came ashore wearing these broad-brimmed black hats together with an open-necked striped shirt, navy-or-white duck trousers and a neckerchief that was often red. The characteristic hats were waterproofed with tar, or some kind of water-resistant paint, and it is thought that the term "Jack Tar" developed from this headgear or from the fact that sailors' pig­tails were dipped into tar. Some of the 6-inch versions of Jack Tar have particularly well­painted faces and are costumed in fabrics rather than having painted clothes. A few later ver­sions are found with machine­stitched clothing, proving that they continued to be made until the 1870s.

The carved wooden sailors made around 1810 are some­what anonymous, but by the middle years of the century the makers were indicating differ­ent nationalities. Regulation uniforms were established for enlisted men in the U.S. Navy in 1841, with Britain following in 1857, so that after 1860, al­most all toy ships and seamen give some indication of nationality. Some of the smaller South Ger­man-made sailors were almost cer­tainly intended as crew members of rowing boats, and they are sometimes found among the contents of nursery cupboards or in long- forgotten boxes of toys. Seated in a skiff or even a yacht, they look realistic, but they were not very satisfactory as play dolls because their small sizes make them difficult to stand. In the 1840s, a range of sailors wearing black sou'westers was made with composition heads and the usual carved and jointed wooden bodies. Most repre­sent older, bearded men, though again the heads are so fragile that they have often disintegrated.


Antique wooden sailor dolls
This type of wooden sailor with a composition head was made in many sizes. He wears a German uniform. Height of larger doll is 3 inches. Courtesy Constance King Collection.

It is not unusual to find standard Grodnertal woodens dressed as sailors, particularly those made be­tween 1810 and 1830. They often wear long, white trousers and open jackets. Some more expensive Grod­nertal-type bodies were fitted with white porcelain lower limb sections and porcelain shoulder heads for what was seen as greater realism. The illustrated dolls' house sailor in a white suit with colored shoes is con­sequently both rare as a doll and interesting because of this costume.

It is sometimes difficult to decide if some of the more static carved wooden and composition figures seen in early toy catalogs are in fact ornaments or toys. In one of the Sonneberg mer­chants' illustrated catalogs of 1831, we find an admiral in a bright coat and breeches carrying a telescope. Like other figures in the series, which represent various occupations, he has an over-large comical head and a big, bushy beard. More suitable for the nursery were wheeled toys, such as a wooden man rowing a boat with oars that moved as the boat was wheeled along. The difference between the naval and the merchant sea­men was obviously important to children, so the German wood­carvers produced separate toys. In one, a plainly dressed mer­chant seaman sat among boxes of provisions, while in the other a uniformed officer stands guard. Because of their fragility, such toys are incredibly rare, forcing collectors to study them through old illustrations in merchant sample books.

Jumeau in sailor dress
Sailor suits in navy or white were popular with all the French and German doll makers. The closed-mouth Jumeau is 22 inches tall. Courtesy Jane Vandell Associates.

By the mid-1800s, sailor dolls of various types were found in the toy shops. Bisque, porcelain, wooden, wax and papier-mâché type figures were all sometimes costumed as adult sailors in response to the affection showered on brave seamen, whose exploits were recounted in periodicals that were be­coming affordable to most families.

The fashion for dressing children as sailors took off after Queen Victo­ria's oldest son, Albert Ed ward, Prince of Wales, was painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1846. The little boy with golden curls looked charm­ing, and the portrait inspired hun­dreds of imitators. Lady Lyttleton wrote at the time, "Princey quite at home in his sailor dress;" the costume, she added, pleased every "Jack Tar" and "John Bull" who saw it. Victorian children looked enchanting in their sailor outfits, but they also had a prac­tical value in preparing boys for their future role in life. Even the royal princes were sent to their training ships from the age of 12, as was com­mon in any families that chose the Navy as a career.


It was the portraits of the children of several European royal families that inspired the French and German doll makers to design sailor suits for their boy and girl dolls. It is these flattering images, later augmented by photographs, that prompted so many white cotton or woollen suits edged with braid and jaunty caps with the name of some well-known ship on the band.

Souvenir sailor doll
Left: Souvenir sailors were manufactured by several firms. Because of the number made, they remain relatively inexpen• sive. These are marked with the Nora Wellings foot label. Height 8 inches. Courtesy Constance King Antiques. Right: Charles Dwight Sigsbee (1845-1923) doll, made by Cuno and Otto Dressel, with the bisque head made by Simon & Halbig. 1898. Height 14 inches. Capt. Sigsbee was commanding the battleship USS Maine when it was attacked and sunk in Havana harbor. Courtesy Constance King Collection.

Dozens of magazines, such as The Delineator in 1892, offered patterns for making sailor suits for dolls, with both bell-bottomed and straight­legged trousers. Because children across Europe and America wore this form of dress, it was naturally copied for their dolls. Some of the children's outfits were tailor-made with com­plete accuracy, as there was a fashion for naval officers to dress their small sons in replica outfits, complete with brass buttons and gold braid. To date, I have not found a photograph of fa­ther, son and doll, all in the same out­fit-perhaps something a modern doll maker could create.

Antique bisque sailor doll
William McKin­ley (1843-1901), who was president during the Spanish-American War. 1898. Height 14 inches. Cour­tesy Jane Vandell Associates.

Rubber sailor dolls were first sold in America in 1856 when they were ad­vertised by George Davis, but unfor­tunately only later rubber sailors have survived because of the fragility of the material. Those dating to around 1900 are often of the squeeze-toy type with a whistle. Rubber was an ideal sub­stance for mass-producing amusing figures; a large number of sailors were made during World War I by the Fault­less Rubber Co. in the U.S.

In peacetime, sailor dolls repre­sented children dressed in naval outfits; in times of war, more realism was demanded. The dolls became less child­inspired than patriotic, less charming than severe. The finest examples of re­alism in sailor dolls are the characters created at the time of the Spanish­American War (1898). These bisque portraits are the ultimate bisque sailor dolls, as each is immediately recogniz­able from contemporary photographs.

The finely crafted, bisque socket heads were made by Simon & Halbig for Cuno & Otto Dressel of Sonneberg in 1898, who supplied the bodies and costumed the dolls, which were made in two sizes. They have particularly well-modeled beards and moustaches and delicately painted hair. The heads are flat topped, with stringing holes, so that the heavy, molded hats would fit securely. Curiously, these portrait heads are mounted on cheap, fibrous­type bodies, with the limbs cast from simple two-part molds. The heads are also over-large for the height of the bodies, giving the curious effect of men's heads on children's bodies. De­spite the simple five-piece construc­tion, the dolls were costumed in some detail, complete with rows of brass buttons, gold braid and naval swords.

The battles of the Spanish-Amer­ican War were fought under the pres­idency of William McKinley and resulted in Cuba's obtaining her free­dom from Spain, while Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico were ceded to the U.S. The battles with the Spanish fleet made he­roes of the naval officers, and the dolls were pro­duced especially for sale in America.

Grodnertal doll
"Jack Tar" with the typical black hat with a card brim and a molded composition head on a Groclnertal-type body. Circa 1840. Height 6 Inches. Courtesy Constance King Collection.

Margaret Whitton re­corded having found two heads marked "D & H" on models of Com­modore George Dewey and naval hero Richmond Pearson Hobson, though the examples that have passed through my hands have been un­marked. To date, the portrait dolls dis­covered are Winfield Scott Schley, who had a moustache and a goatee beard and commanded the "Flying Squadron," William Thomas Samp­son, commander of the Western At­lantic Squadron, who has a fierce, full, dark beard-and-moustache and Com­modore Dewey, a chippy little fellow with big eyes and a neat moustache. William McKinley is the only clean­shaven doll and is the least attractive model, with heavy, dark brows and pursed lips. He was president during the Spanish-American War. Rich­mond Pearson Hobson has a full, black, drooping moustache and is fa­mous for sinking the Merrimac in Santiago harbor. One of the illustrated dolls is of Charles Dwight Sigsbee (1845-1923), who was commander of the battleship USS Maine at the time it was sunk. He has a full, but straight, moustache. As all these bisque dolls wear very similar uniforms, they are often confused when they are cata­loged for auction.

Printed cloth doll
Printed fabric doll of a naval com­mander, made by Sunlight Sieve and Co. of the Cres­cent Works, Manchester. Circa 1915. Height 16½ inches. Courtesy Constance King Antiques.

Today, sailors are rarely seen in the toy shops, though the outfits are popular with the doll costumiers of retrospective art dolls and reproduc­tions. In comparison, during the two world wars, every dime store was packed with cheap, usually unmarked, versions in pressed card, plaster, printed fabric and composition. Most represent smiling teenagers, though a few made of rubber are chubby in­fants. All are interesting because they represent the uniforms of various countries. Because children in the 20th century did not look after their toys, a comparatively low number has sur­vived, though the more realistic por­trait figures were kept because of their obvious quality. One unknown firm made a series of portraits of various national leaders in uniforms, as did the British toy maker, Farnell, who cos­tumed some of the royals as officers. Almost every doll collector owns a small fabric Nora Wellings or Chad Valley sailor of the type sold as sou­venirs on the ocean liners. Larger sizes of both types were made and are obvi­ously sought after.

As minimalism has crept into the world of dolls, collectors have had to become more selective. Those who spe­cialize in particular types, be they fairies, royals or sailors, must be re­sourceful to find their dolls of choice.

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