Doll House Has Hundreds Of Tenants In Historic Ellicott City


82-year-old Runs Store And Museum

January 12, 1992|By Dolly Merritt

The third floor of 8014 Main Street in historic Ellicott City could be mistaken for grandmother's attic. A familiar, musty scent in the vintage building enhances the mood for discovering the treasures that fill up three rooms.

In them are dolls, hundreds of dolls. Rag dolls, Jenny dolls, Kissy, Cameo and German barefoot dolls. The rooms are home to dolls who sit on tables and shelves, in curio cabinets and shadow boxes, on rockers and in cradles. They line the walls and occupy the floors.

And each has a name and a story that Florence Bahr is eager to share.

Bahr, an 82-year-old Elkridge resident and owner of Humpty Dumpty Dolls and Toys, is an unusual proprietor. Her store is part shopand part museum. For six years, she has been running the tiny operation.

But, as she points out, "I've been collecting dolls all of mylife."

Two of the shop's three rooms comprise the museum, and thedolls there are not for sale. The museum is open only by appointment, and Bahr charges $2 to get in. A third room -- the store -- holds dolls for sale and is open Saturdays and Sundays from 12:30 to 4 p.m.

Nowhere to be found among Bahr's collection are expensive "mint-in-box" dolls, the kind in perfect condition.

"They are dolls that have never been loved, never been played with or enjoyed," she said.

The dolls she sells and collects are in another class -- much-played-with dolls, often many years old, priced anywhere from $35 to $1,000.

Bahr, a widow who raised three children, says her own parents fostered her appreciation for dolls.

"I was the first girl in the family and I got doted on," she said.

Two of her oldest and most valuable dolls are family heirlooms that once belonged to her mother and great-aunt. The oldest, named for her father's Aunt Emma, is about 170 years old. Bahr's mother was given only Emma's papier-mache head and shoulders, so she had a muslin body made at a doll hospital in Baltimore. Bahr was 12 when she was given the doll.

"At the time, I had my eye on another doll and it was a let-down, but now the doll ismy pride and joy," Bahr said.

Her mother's doll, Florence, is about the same age and was named for Bahr's mother.

Ask Bahr anythingabout dolls and she will enthusiastically tell you everything -- especially during one of her museum guided tours, which can last from 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Using a flashlight to periodically illuminate the vinyl, bisque, rubber and papier-mache faces, she describes each dollin detail -- what it's made of, who made it and its age. She even throws in a few tidbits about how she acquired some of them, and of their particular significance to her.

Making her way around the room,she lightly touches "Little Miss Revlon," made in 1957, and motions to a German doll called the "Goose Girl" that is carefully arranged in a cabinet with miniature geese at her feet. She straightens a bonnet here and there or tenderly picks a doll up for a better look.

Two dolls dressed in winter Victorian-style clothing stand in mounds ofwhite cotton "snow."

"Those two are playing in the snow and are exhausted," Bahr explains with a twinkle in her eye. She readily admits that her imagination contributed to her fascination with dolls -- especially large ones because as a young girl she liked dolls that would "fill your arms like a real baby."

She started building her collection during the Depression, when she earned some glad money by selling beauty products.

"Once in a while, I would be led to someone who was selling dolls, and I would buy one," she said. At that time, Bahr says, most dolls were inexpensive. But since they have become a popular collector's item, prices can be hundreds of dollars and more depending on a doll's rarity, condition and age.

Bahr's penchant for dolls developed into today's sizable collection, although she saysshe has never bothered to count how many dolls she owns.

Her collection also includes baby doll bottles, cradles, doll books and Humpty Dumptys. She bought her first Humpty Dumpty, about 14-inches high, from a Goodwill store "many years ago," and it has been the namesake of her business.

In addition, there are other toys and memorabiliaon display, such as a wooden doll house given to Bahr when she was about 4 years old. A small, toy Singer sewing machine, from which the collector made doll clothes when she was a child, is an integral partof the museum. Also included is Bahr's Girl Scout uniform -- a long khaki skirt, blouse with badges sewn on the sleeve and a matching hat-- displayed next to a doll dressed in an identical uniform from thesame era.

"I never throw anything away," Bahr said.

When Bahr isn't conducting tours or working in her shop, she is likely to be painting portraits of her favorite subject -- dolls. Her late husband, Leonard, was a former portrait artist and a professor at the MarylandInstitute.

Several watercolor paintings line the narrow stairway leading to the third floor. So far, she has painted 350 portraits -- several of which were exhibited at the Rockland Art Center in 1989. Bahr hopes to someday have her paintings published in a book.

She is hard-pressed to identify a favorite doll.

Her family heirlooms are high on the list, and she has special affection for an infant dollwith "flirty eyes" that glide from side to side when her head is moved.

"All of the dolls are different and each have their own character," Bahr said. "I love them all."

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