Fabric Dolls: From Cradle To Showcase

March 31, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

It's morning at the Baltimore Museum of Art and, apart from the far-off echoes of unseen workers, the occasional slam of a distant door, the main hall is wrapped in a reverent hush that makes you think of church.

Suddenly the silence is broken by a roar -- the sounds of two dozen pairs of rubber-soled shoes squeaking and scuffing across the terrazzo, talking, laughter, yells testing the echo -- as a small herd of third graders rumbles around a corner.

Bursting into the textile section, they wheel and spin back and forth across the room, going from one case to another, shaking the Plexiglas as they press against it.

They are all talking at once and every sentence begins with the word "look."

"Look at the little baby."

"Look at the house."

"Look at that one" . . . "Look at this" . . . "Look at this one here."

Then just as quickly they are gone, carried off in an unstoppable tide of field-trip adrenalin.

In less than five minutes, they have absorbed the images of 200 years of the history of rag and fabric dolls, crib quilts and doll quilts in an exhibit entitled "Warm Remembrances: The Fabric of Childhood."

It is based on our earliest connections to cloth, the idea that it is often fabric that first touches us, moments from birth. Through childhood, in the form of covers and quilts and dolls made of cloth, fabric continues to comfort and nurture us.

"Warm Remembrances," which runs through July 21, started out to be a show devoted to just to crib quilts, says Anita Jones, associate curator for textiles and curator of this show. "I began with the idea of doll quilts because quilts are so very popular and started thinking we should have some fabric dolls to show in association with the quilts," she says.

"I always just thought of a rag doll as very simple and all more or less in the same vein. But then I started seeing dolls that had molded faces and dolls that were meant to represent historical characters, all in exact proportion. And then dolls like these," she continues, pointing to a case filled with faceless Amish dolls dressed in black, "that have ideas of religious convictions behind them. And when I started to see that, I became very interested in showing the variety in dolls made of fabric."

Tracing the history of fabric dolls also traces in a subtle way the economic history of women. When America was an agrarian society and women worked the farms alongside their husbands, they had little time to devote to creative things such as dollmaking. It was only after the Industrial Revolution allowed more women to devote extra time to nurturing their children and tending the home that more sophisticated dolls and quilts appeared.

Then in the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, you see dolls made by women who turned their dollmaking into careers.

"Often it was the case of a mother making something for a child or for neighborhood children and then winding up turning that into a job and then turning that into a commercial enterprise," Ms. Jones explains.

An example of this is the Lenci dolls, made in Italy. During World War I, Elena Scavini, struggling to live on her soldier husband's pay, began, with her brother's help, to fashion dolls out of scraps of felt. "By the time her husband returned from the war, she had a going concern that became an international operation," she adds.

Another subtheme is the education of children. As the exhibit evolved, Ms. Jones explains, she began to incorporate the ideas of what dolls and quilts teach children.

"This little Amish doll," she says, "is dressed in the garb you would see on Amish women. The dolls in the Amish community do not have faces because the Amish felt that to make a face even on a doll was a graven image. And their religion was so strict that they believed that that was forbidden.

Another case shows dolls in ethnic dress, which were often made to educate children about other cultures.

At other times, the making of the doll itself was part of the $H eduction.

Just getting a doll sometimes involved lessons in the mid-1800s, as Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe advised mothers at the time: "When a little girl begins to sew, her mother can promise her a small bed and pillow as soon as she has sewed a patch[work] for these; and then a bedstead, as soon as she has sewed the sheets and cases for pillows; and then a large doll to dress, as soon as she has made the undergarments; and thus go till the whole contents of the baby-house are earned by the needle and skill of its little owner."

"In that way she was earning her way and she was learning what she was to do in later life," explains Ms. Jones.

Several of the doll quilts are the work of children, who started learning needle skills at an early age. "There are accounts from the 19th century of children getting together and sewing their quilt when they were as young as 5 years old."

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