"Dolls are the only toys made in our image, the only human-like creatures children are given dominion over. You, the child, are the creator of an ordered existence: a miniature kingdom that can imitate or disrupt the logic of your everyday life, the life conceived of and run by adults"
—Margo Jefferson, 2015

Doll with blue eyes, US, 1935
Mixed fabrics, cardboard, mohair, paint Inscribed on torso: “[Brooke] 1935.”

This Black doll features unusual blue eyes. 

Doll in red outfit, US, ca. 1915-25
Mixed fabrics, metal

This doll wears a romper—a loosely-fitting suit ideal for playtime, first popular in the early 1900s.

Pair of dolls with corduroy knickers, possibly New Hampshire, 
ca. 1895-1915
Mixed fabrics, leather, animal fur, porcelain

Attired in corduroy britches and printed cotton shirts, these schoolboys also sport mischievous grins. 

Doll in red chair, Cherryfield, Maine, ca. 1900 
Mixed fabrics, wood, leather

This doll belonged to Marada Corliss, who was born in Cherryfield, Maine, in 1896.

Doll in polka dot chemise, US, 
late 19th/early 20th centuries
Mixed fabrics, glass 

Doll in patterned shift, possibly Kentucky, 
Mixed fabrics, leather  

The girl’s simple play dress is made from an Art Nouveau-inspired printed fabric.  

Coconut-head doll made by Mrs. Herman Murray, 
St. Louis, 
Mixed fabrics, coconut shell, leather, glass  

Young William Murray received this coconut-head doll as a Christmas present from his mother in 1879. 

Doll with red-trimmed jacket, US, 1900-25
Mixed fabrics

The doll’s coat reflects the popularity of children’s sailor suits beginning in the late 1800s. 

Left side of house

Doll in white dress made by Mrs. C. Ettinger,
US, ca. 1920-30 

Mixed fabrics including feed sack, paper  
This doll has lost her hat, which would have complemented her skillfully sewn dress and booties.

Doll with bonnet, 
US, late 19th century 

Mixed fabrics, leather  
The maker cleverly repurposed children’s leather gloves 
to fashion the doll’s hands. 

Doll in red dress, US, late 19th century
Mixed fabrics, animal fur, leather  

This doll wears a modified child’s dress and manufactured children’s shoes

Doll in pink dress, US, late 19th century  
Mixed fabrics, leather

Sock doll, US, ca. 1950-70 
Mixed fabrics

The maker ingeniously repurposed a man’s striped dress sock for the torso and another sock for the head and arms. Stuffed with quick-drying nylon stockings, the squishy doll was likely made for a baby.

Doll in paisley coat dress, US, 1900-25 

Doll with red sash, probably Pennsylvania, ca. 1880-90
Mixed fabrics, animal fur, metal, leather, wood  

This doll’s distinctive leather shoes with soles outlined in metal relate to patented shoes made for Confederate soldiers. They are also similar to clogs worn by children working in New England textile mills.  

Doll with plaid dress, US, early 20th century
Mixed fabrics  
This simple, well-loved doll was probably made and dressed by a child.  

Sock doll, US, late 19th/early 20th century
Mixed fabrics

Surviving photographs of children and their dolls from the 1850s through the 1920s provide vivid context for the handmade Black dolls in the exhibition. The photographs also complicate and frustrate any easy understanding of who made, received, cherished, and played with these dolls. Strikingly, the majority of extant photographs with handmade Black dolls show them in the hands of white children, while images of Black children more often than not depict them holding white dolls. In fact, surviving photographs of Black children with Black dolls are quite rare.    

The images depict children and dolls from Maine to Georgia to Wisconsin. They invite us to consider the experience of childhood during a period when the nation was divided by color lines and ponder how children navigated their racial identity in the post-Civil War era.   

These original photographs are just a small sampling from the extensive collection of Deborah Neff. 

Deconstructing Dinah