Dolls of the United States

Although there are no dolls from the United States at the museum, it is worth taking a look at our own society and asking: what role do dolls play in our society?

Since the invention of toys, the United States has often separated them based on gender, deeming certain toys appropriate for girls, such as dolls, and others for boys, such as trucks. Because of this separation and the design of the toys themselves, toys have depicted gender stereotypes, roles, and behavior. 

Although dolls have been used (and are used) both by boys and girls, throughout history they have been widely marketed for girls. Dolls, specifically baby dolls, are usually targeted at young girls, encouraging them to become young mothers to their dolls. Societal standards and constructs are reflected in the toys that are made for children, teaching them at a young age how they are supposed to dress and behave. "Boy” toys encourage young boys to work with their hands, be strong and play rough. “Girl” toys, like dolls, encourage young girls to be mothers, be delicate, and be caring. 

Baby dolls

Photo: Creative common license

"By the 1920’s, nearly all American doll manufacturers were marketing their dolls ‘to emphasize domesticity, maternity, and femininity’"-Formanek-Brunell 1993

“…Dolls were implicated in the indoctrination of girls 'to become caring, maternal, and passive'"- A. Wagner-Ott 2002 

Baby playing with doll

Photo: Creative common license

Gender stereotypes are not the only aspect of American society that influenced the production of dolls. The presence of racism and prejudices in America have been reflected in dolls throughout history, mainly depicting dolls that are white, blue eyes, skinny, and blonde. 

Generational changes

As society evolves so do the values and ideals of each generation and those changes are reflected in the dolls. With feminist ideals and the fight for social justice becoming more prominent in both academia and our everyday life, the role of dolls within our society are being more critically studied and analyzed. 

What once were predominantly white dolls in pink dresses are now dolls of various races, body types, job occupations or hobbies. 

Barbie dolls
Photo: Barbie doll website 

Barbie dolls

Photo: Creative common license

American Girl dolls

Photo: American Girl dolls website 

For certain American girl dolls, teams of historians have been asked to help create the stories of the dolls to ensure that it is as accurate as possible. This was done with the doll Melody, a young African American girl from the 60's. 

References

Hodgins, B. Denise. “Playing With Dolls: (Re)Storying Gendered Caring Pedagogies.” International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, vol. 5, no. 4.2, 2014, pp. 782–807., doi:10.18357/ijcyfs.hodginsbd.5422014. 

Vaughan, Kelly M., "America rough Rose-Colored Glasses: How American Girl Dolls Shape American Girlhood and Identity". Senior eses, Trinity College, Hartford, CT 2017.

 

Wagner-Ott, A. (2002). Analysis of gender identity through doll and action figure politics in art education. Studies in Art Education, 43(3), 246–263.

Formanek-Brunell, M. (1993). Made to play house: Dolls and the commercialization of American girlhood, 1830-1930. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Temple Anthropology Laboratory and Museum 

Gladfelter Hall- Lower Level, Temple University

1115 Polett Walk, Philadelphia, PA 19122

anthlab@temple.edu

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