Littell's Living Age/Volume 131/Issue 1688/Dolls

From The Spectator.


The "dead season," when we have the most beautiful days of the whole year, and the parks and Kensington Gardens are revelations of unsuspected loveliness, offers a favorable opportunity for indulging in the harmless pastime of looking in at shop-windows, which no one would confess to having time to do at livelier epochs, and so studying the smaller arts and industries. The magnificent objects of commerce are, for the most part, in eclipse; even the "great bargains" have had their day; modes are modestly represented by dubious articles which have not taken during the season, and are stragglingly paraded for the ensnarement of inexperienced provincials. Fanciful adjuncts to dress which no woman of fashion would have been seen without six months ago, or would dream of wearing now, are displayed with the ostentation of a final effort; and the coming season is heralded by a tempting exhibition of furs and flannel, whereby bargain-hunters are persuaded that winter goods are to be had ever so much more cheaply by being purchased before anybody requires them. These features of the "dead season" one passes by and reasons not upon. But now is the time to inspect the shops in which the wonderful things which nobody can possibly want are sold, — the mysterious cutlery, including complicated machines for doing the simplest things; the cheap jewellery, where every conceivable vagary of bad taste is indulged in the article of brooches, and the multitude of second-hand silver watches implies either a general "depression," or promotion to gold on a large scale; the minor bric-à-brac, among which ancient spoons and the chimney candlesticks of former days figure largely, and real live snuffers and their trays may be found; the ugly and expensive fancy-work which never cheats anybody into the belief that the impossible patterns are worked at home; and the amazing stationery, whose arrangement has become quite a competitive art. Most fascinating of all are the toy-shops, — not the very grand toy-shops, the splendid "emporiums" in which every useless luxury and costly device of the day are reproduced in miniature for the children of this generation, who are above being amused by Jack-in-the-box, and who, having doubts on the deluge at the age at which their grandparents sucked the paint off the long coats of Shem, Ham, and Japhet, regard regard Noah's ark with indifference, but the smaller shops, where the stock is limited to the reasonable requirements of the children of the masses, and to some in particular, where the line is drawn at dolls.

To the mind given to hasty generalization, dolls are apt to appear monotonous, possibly inane; but what a mistaken notion that is, it needs only inspection of a good stock of them, and inquiry into the method of their production, to be convinced. The autumn lounger who cannot be attracted by a doll-shop must be hard to please and of restricted sympathies, for it is a world in little, and represents society not only in its simplest elements, but in its complicated forms and varieties. There is, indeed, a deficiency in masculine interest; only in French doll-shops are "Monsieur, Madame, et Bébé" impartially represented; in ours, gentlemen dolls are few and unattached; mothers and children have the shelves and the window-fronts all to themselves, and occupy them in a variety undreamed of by the doll-buying world when the mothers of the present day played with dolls, and those works of art, as deficient in "outline" as Mr. Mantalini's countess, were fashioned with a serene disregard to anatomy which even gutta-percha would be ashamed of now. Where is the Dutch doll of those vanished ages, whose unassuming joints worked on the principle of the axle, and whose stomach was as flat as those of the most unpleasant of Sir Samuel Baker's clients on the White Nile? Where are the dolls with red dabs for mouths, and bodies composed of one thick pink-kid sausage, terminating in two thin pink-kid sausages (say, a Lyons and two Cambridge), with their ends shaped to the fineness of the feet of Miss Knag's mamma, as mentioned in the annals of Kate Nickleby's fortunes? They are no more to be seen, not even in the humblest shops; they have vanished, with that zoological nondescript, a short barrel on four upright pegs, with a fragment of fur nailed at one end, and red wafers stuck all over its surface, which was last seen in the hands of Mr. Toole, when, as Caleb Plummer, he pathetically, declares that "it is as natural as he can make it for sixpence."

Modestly attired in silver paper, and curiously foreshortened by reason of their legs being doubled up to economize space, the cheaper order of dolls of the period return the gaze of the flâneur at the shop-window, with very little simper, and hardly any stare — the dolls of other days were all simper and stare — and exhibit a delightful variety of hair-dressing. Who does not remember the neat wig of tow curls of the corkscrew pattern which prevailed in our youth, and what middle-aged man cannot successfully search his conscience for a surreptitious removal of the small tin tacks which fastened that wig to the wooden skull of his sister's doll, and for a chuckle of delight when he had succeeded in poking the black beady eyes back into the hollow cavern behind them, and heard them rattle? There were no real eyebrows and eyelashes in those days, no parted lips, and pearly little teeth — the first dolls provided with "real" teeth, made from quills, were regarded with an almost fearful curiosity — and the children for whom dolls were bought were popularly supposed to make clothes for them. Very likely they never did, but the notion is not even entertained now, and the more important dolls take their trousseaux to their new homes in miniature Saratoga boxes. A modern little girl not only does not make her doll's clothes, but she actually puts out her washing! She knows nothing of the delight of the doll's laundry-day, with the drying-lines stretched across the inside of the high fender, and the loan of the private Italian iron with which nurse got up her caps. If she has any imagination, and has been given a very splendid specimen of the modern doll, she is rather afraid of the brilliant waxen lady in a Worth costume, tied back, and flounced, with piles of golden hair, and face marvellously moulded to the last fashionable expression of flirtation or ennui. This is not a person to be patted off to sleep upon one's pillow, propped up on the table while one is learning one's lessons, or surreptitiously dipped in the nursery bath. Of grand dolls of this kind it may fairly be supposed that they are more blessed to the giver than to the receiver, and that the former are of the wealthy-bachelor, god-papa order, whose intentions are good, but whose domestic education is imperfect. They are beautiful objects in the shop-windows, and they faithfully represent every fashion and every folly of the moment. But what healthily-constituted child, with brains, would really care to have a model of a skating-rink, with two couples of rinkers, in correct attire and the daintiest miniatures of Plimpton's skates, moving mechanically over the floor? Such a toy has nothing but its cost to recommend it, and the youthful proprietor who should pull it to pieces to see how it was done would command our approval. Other objectionabledolls are the fine ladies in promenade costumes, with "realistic," lank cheeks, tight mouths, wasp-like figures, and languishing eyes, with all the effects of bistre and belladonna faithfully presented. Perhaps it would be absurd to talk of a doll as a moral, immoral, or unmoral agency, but children are at least as well without suggestions of Madame Benoiton.

Supposing the flâneur to be also an intending purchaser, his difficulty of choice will grow with every moment, as he catches sight of the waxen beauties which hang, like Bluebeard's wives, in corners, who form garlands of florid cherubs across the window-tops, or peep at him from glass cases with shy blue eyes or bright black ones, with sweeping lashes, distractingly real, and such lovely hair! It is brushed back from their snowy temples in rippling silken waves, or laid flat on their beautifully-shaped heads in soft little curls; it is braided in high coronets over the brows of the more intellectual — for there are dolls of talent and character among the collection, whose bumps have been studied — or it is tied up in irresistible "clubs" and "pigtails." The dark-haired dolls are less costly than the fair-haired, because fair hair (human) is much dearer than dark; and fair mohair is less successful, though it looks wonderfully bright and silky too, spread out on the shoulders of a beautiful waxen lady in a white dressing-gown, who is contemplating herself in a looking-glass. If one can get a peep behind the window, one may see scores of waxen busts not yet stitched on to their respective bodies, and discern, in half-opened drawers, hundreds of rosy, dimpled limbs; baby hands and feet — which look very funny in their unassociated condition: and one may quickly learn to distinguish the composite doll, whose foundations are laid with paper and whose wax is merely "run," from the solid person, with no pretence about her, who is all wax. On a counter, in a small armchair, sits a demure waxen child, with a book on its knee, a mechanical finger following the printed line; and close to him lie a heap of "nigger" dolls, scantily clothed in a single garment, but so red-lipped, smiling, woolly, jolly, and natural, that one feels at once those are the dolls for one's money, and for one's young friends. They will not want any clothes, and knocking about will come quite naturally to them. So one walks on, with Mumbo in one pocket and Jumbo in the other, wondering admiringly at the pitch to which high art in dolls has been brought, but a little doubtful whether they were not pleasanter to their possessors in their lowlier estate.

The most intelligent child with whom the present writer is acquainted has attached herself with unwavering constancy to a gutta-percha doll, whose original costume was exceedingly limited in extent, and who was introduced to her as "Jemima." The young person in question was not quite up to dressing her new acquisition, she was only equal to undressing her, which she did, reducing her attire to the prettily-ribbed stockings and smart shoes, which she could not take off because they are integral portions of Jemima's gutta-percha legs. The love of that child for that doll is curious to see. No toy, however admirable in mechanism or art, has any chance against Jemima; even the whiskers and the truncheon of a gutta-percha policeman, colored with an almost painful brilliancy, have displayed themselves in a vain rivalry. Jemima's mistress inaugurated their mutual relations by biting off Jemima's nose, thus rendering her horribly like a mutilated Montenegrin; this apparently satisfied her wish to learn what Jemima was made of, and ever since she has been convinced that her doll is all that is charming and beautiful. She sleeps with Jemima, she entrusts Jemima for brief, privileged intervals to the care of highly-favored visitors, she shares her meals with Jemima; and if she permits her attention to stray into other channels for a while, she sits on Jemima, in order to keep her safe and have her handy, as Dickens describes the selfish old man at the seaside reading-room sitting on one popular newspaper while he reads another. Jemima never was handsome, she is now most unprepossessing; but she possesses two attractions which, in the belief of the present writer, would outweigh in a child's mind the charms of the grandest doll in our shop-window. She is flexible, and no one would dream of locking her up, and only giving her out to be played with "when little people are very good."

A propos of Dickens and dolls, how mistaken he is in making Esther Summerson, in "Bleak House," address her doll as "Dolly"! No child whose doll was her real friend would ever do such a thing, any more than any man who boasts the real intimacy and confidence of a cat would call his four-footed friend "Puss."