It could be a corn husk, rag, Raggedy Ann, Betsy-Wetsy, DyDee, Barbie, Cabbage Patch or Bratz. Girls have played with dolls from pioneer days to modern times. Like many forms of imaginative play, it is a natural process where children develop empathy for others and advance their language, thinking, problem-solving and social skills as they pretend to be something in the world around them and mimic future adult-like roles. With all the high-tech toys today, can children even imagine what it was like years ago when entertainment and play was initiated solely by one's own imagination? As seen in this column's ongoing series, touring the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum is one way people can get a glimpse of what life was like long ago, including that of a child and her doll in the dining room.
Dolls were simple in by-gone years, particularly rag dolls made by mothers for their daughters and fashioned from remnant pieces of fabric. Some companies did begin to manufacture rag dolls in the United States in the mid-1800s. Of course, intricate dolls were made of all sorts of materials in ancient times and in Europe during colonial times. Wood, wax, leather and porcelain were used with the advent of china and bisque for heads. In America, wealthier people were able to import such dolls from France and Germany.
Over time, doll manufacturers began to make dolls in the form of children versus adult models, with the baby-doll becoming very popular by the later 1800s. The doll at the museum is one of these, a "Sugar Baby Effanbee," that spends most of her days in the high chair in the dining room.
An old Effanbee Sugar Baby doll is part of the display at the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum.
Sugar Baby, donated to the museum by an elderly local woman, was unique at the time because she was one of the first dolls to be realistically proportioned. Her size comes closer to a real baby than earlier dolls that were smaller models. "Effanbee" was a doll manufacturer beginning in 1912, founded by Bernard Fleischaker and Hugo Baum. Taking the first letter of each of the last names (F & B) creates the word "Effanbee." Sugar Baby was produced in the mid-1930s with a composition head, arms, and legs with a cloth torso and molded, painted hair. Around this same time the DyDee was also produced, the first drink and wet doll that could have its diaper changed. With these dolls, many girls played out future motherhood roles, mimicking the care and nurturing they observed from their own mothers.
What imaginative toys other than dolls were used in earlier days? Some of the top selling toys, according to the site toyslovetoknow.com, lists Crayola crayons, Lionel trains and teddy bears as being invented in the first few years of the twentieth century and still used today. Raggedy Ann came along a short time later along with Tinker-toys, Lincoln logs, and erector sets. Die cast metal toys surfaced in the 1920s, and then board games such as Monopoly and Sorry in the 1930s with Sugar Baby, DyDee and Betsy Wetsy dolls. The 1940s had Tonka trucks, Scrabble, and the slinky, and then the 50s saw the birth of the first Barbie doll. Still sold from this decade includes Play-doh, Lego building sets, the frisbee and hula-hoop.
The 1960s and 70s were a fun time with hot wheel cars, Etch-a-sketch, Twister and Easy Bake Ovens. Who would think you could bake a small cake with the heat from a light bulb? It was all the rage when this columnist was a child and those of us from this generation can envision shopping for the little boxes of desserts, mixing up the batter and looking through the small window as the cake was baked under the bulb. Action figures from Star Wars were wildly popular in the 1970s, followed by such toys as My Little Pony, Care Bears, Cabbage Patch Kids and the Rubiks Cube in the 80s. Other than Beanie Babies in the 1990s, most toys that followed were electronic and high tech, beginning with Gameboy and toy computers.
Every age has a history of how children entertained themselves and played. Years ago children were expected to do more work in helping with household chores and had less free time. When they did have discretionary time, they used their imaginations and developed skills that children are lacking today, but that would be a topic of a whole other column. How many children today would spend hours cutting out paper dolls and manipulating the tabs to change from one fashionable outfit to the next?
As far as dolls, the words of Mark Twain express the sentiments of many little girls with, "Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child's loss of a doll and a king's loss of a crown are events of the same size." As far as the Sugar Baby doll at the lighthouse museum, one can only imagine the play in which she was engaged with little girls over the last 80-plus years. "Desperation," by Stephen King said that, "Dolls with no little girls around to mind them were sort of creepy under any conditions." To the casual observer at the museum, Sugar Baby might appear to be alone and "creepy," but those intimate with the museum including caretakers and tour guides know that she is not alone. She is still loved by a playful inhabitant of the past, but that too is the topic of another column, but known by a few others who have taken the ghost tours.
Make it a good week. Although the museum is now closed through April, the virtual tour through this column will continue.