China Heads: These glazed porcelain heads first showed themselves in about 1830-40, with some bald examples called Bidemeier dolls. Some of these heads boast a black sot for a wig. John Noble’s Dolls and Beautiful Dolls have excellent examples. There were glazed figurines even before this, with busts dating to the 17th century, and Della Robbia porcelains dating to the Renaissance. Glazed pottery were also found in Ancient Rome and Egypt. Meissen and Staffordshire figurines are older, but it is true that you often see these types of heads on dolls, and doll heads share the same hairdos. The same is true of stone bisque or arian dolls nad bonnet heads; their hairdos and faces early on figurines as well as dolls. Royal Copenhagen makes lovely brown haired dolls, featured in Nobles’ books and in books by Eleanor St. George, and at least one “portrait” head of Jenny Lind in a dark wig is attributed to RC. I know the make figurines, and they started making dolls in the 1980s. Royal Doutlon joined with eggy Nisbet of England about this time to create a series of dolls, including one of the infant prince William and a series of about out 9 in little girls showcasing Days of the Week.
The Chinese and later Japanese brought china production to a fine art, and these examples, Ming, Satsuma [from which figurine dolls are made today] and other figures are very collectible and priceless. China dishes seem to come into use in the 18th century, with the ubiquitous Blue Willow pattern still being used today. I also collect BW and look for examples in old TV shows like Daniel Boone and Dark Shadows. You can find a set on display at Hearst Castle in Sam Simeon, too. China comes from white kaolin clay, and this type of clay can be found today. I’ve made small toys and figurines from it, sometimes glazed, in art classes. Bone china, which I collected in the forms of mini animals and teacups, actually is fired with ground bone and ash. Wedgwood, Noritake, and Royal Doulton still make fine bone china dishes. Haviland china is another company that created wonderful glazed dishes for use in homes.
For me, this are the quintessential antique dolls. I saw my first ones when I was in kindergarten, and received my first when I was 8, not counting the Frozen Charlotte Mom and I bought at the Women’s Club Antique Show when I was 7. My first was Japanese, with the molded bobbed hairdo young girls wore in the fifties. She was a head for a Christmas angel, with a cones cardboard body covered with red feathers, wire chenille covered arms, and a gilt songbook. Her features were painted and her hair was white. I still have her, but she is on a regular doll body with china limbs. She wears a red velvet medieval Barbie sized dress Mom sewed, and a black lace flower hat to conceal damage and cracks. My Aunt Rose gave her to me, and she also made in ceramics the second china head in my collection. This was a 24 in low brow, black glazed hair for Xmas 1968. The doll has china limbs, with high heeled painted black boots and garters. She is dressed in white silk damask with a white lace overskirt, and red ribbon trim. She wears a black velvet choker, as I did at the time, only where mine had a cameo, hers has a tear shaped agate. My mother knitted her a red shawl, and sewed a wardrobe of bright materials from Aunt Rose and my grandma. There is an antique flannel nightgown, underwear, dotted Swiss in red, red and blue polka dots, brown print and blue print with daisies and vintage flowers, a bright yellow daisy print, and a few hats and bonnets. All lived in a vinyl Barbie case!
The next dolls, also 1968, was a replica, that would fool an exert. She wears a red ring leg o’ mutton dress and lingerie. Her shoes are white, high heeled, button down shoes. She is from The Tinkerbell Toy Shop in Disneyland I have her receipt still. She cost $20.00 in 1968, a huge sum for dolls. She is a little thinner than Aunt Rose’s Doll, but can wear her clothes. I added for her a flannel jacket in green with removable felt symbols for each season. The China Sisters, Rose and Rosalie had many adventures, and are honored members of The Museum. Rosalie, from The Magic Kingdom, was meant to be another Xmas gift. When Mom saw the Rose doll, lying in its beautiful tissue lined box, she waited until Valentine’s Day 1969 to give her to me. I was ecstatic. She was a big sister to the dollhouse dolls, and could use their attic as a bed, where she could lie flat comfortably, if a little claustrophobically.
My first antique “low brow” doll was five inches high, all cloth, with cloth arms and legs. Mom sewed her a yellow eyelet and batiste dress she still wears. My first large low brow with black hair was a name head, “Helen,” and I got her at 15. Many whole and fragmented “low brows” joined the collection, many doll house sized, some replicas I made from kits created for doll houses by my friend Violet age.
Aunt rose made me an 19th replica with red hair, a ribbon, and flat boots. She wore a green dress similar to Rose’s white one. Mrs. Brandmeyer of the 18th Avenue Doll Hospital assembled and dressed both dolls. Another small doll in the style of highland Mary never was glazed! I got impatient, and Mom and I made her a body and dress.
Later, I found a Marie Antoinette Sherman Smith doll, and two other Smith dolls on wooden bodies, more Xmas Angels, including choirboys, in sizes from 3 inches to 9 inches. There were more and more half dolls to explore, including some with Medieval headdress Eleanor St. George considered china heads though they were pincushion r half dolls. Another grey harried doll form the 40s is now vintage; her glazed hair is braided and gray. This style is also called “Marie Antoinette,” though we don’t know how many actually resented real women. Others in Nobles’ works are called Maria avlova, Adelina atti, Jenny Lind, and Highland Mary. Some old heads have braids worn on their heads as a coronet. My largest ceramic head is about 12 inches high with such a style, she is an artist head by my friend Violet, and she “nodded” forward in the kiln due to her weight. She makes a doll nearly 4 feet high. There are also Spanish china heads with wigs and painted features from Balos, and some from Capo di Monti and Marin, Italy and Sain.
I learned of Rohmer dolls, with zinc bodies, and Huret dolls, with glass eyes and wigs. I added a patty Jene artist doll of a china head with a wig. She was assembled with old limbs and clothes, and has re-1860 colored flat boots.
My rarest is a man’s head, with black hair, painted eyes, goatee and moustache. I think he may represent Napoleon III, husband of Eugenie, and I have an old head representing Eugenie herself.
There is a Victoria doll from Shackman, and several Jenny Linds, one by Emma Clear, on an antique. One small doll has a waterfall hairdo in a net. Some have molded ribbons. There are swivel necked chinas, and I have one in bisque from Japan with the curly lowbrow hairdo. I think these dolls are meant to have a Gibson girl type hair do with the rest of their hair pinned up in back. They are the most common and plentiful, and cost pennies. Many were made by Hertel and Schwab, and some were found intact after the Iron Curtain came down, in their original East German Factories.
Shards of these and other bisque dolls that were thrown out are still buried in the soil and turn u. I have a box of them, sent from Germany, with the dirt in which they were buried still clinging to them. The box still has its German label.
Tours allow visitors to the factory sites to scoop u as many shards as they can carry, or at least they did. There is a brisk trade in Etsy, eBay, and other online sites for these doll heads and shards. Artists use them for art dolls, found art, shadow boxes, and jewelry. I make pins from them, and I bought several Christmas ornaments form the Cincinnati Art Museum and other galleries this year. I also make barrettes. I have some doll heads that were buried, some in ancient privys! Sanitized these many years later, my mother and I made dolls from them.
Blondes are more unusual, and we have several in different sizes. The smallest china head is about two inches high, a blonde Alice in Wonderland type artist doll, in a real blue dress and pinafore. She has a cloth body and china limbs and is microscopic. I have heads that size made by artist Pat Wolford.
We have another French type man with a side art, and a black china head, which is rare. Standard Doll Company made many historical heads, including Harriet Tubman.
My flat to and curly boy antiques are nearly three feet long, and came from my friend Violet. This flat to is sometimes called a Mary Todd Lincoln head, but a documentary showing Mrs. Lincoln’s girlhood home showed her doll from childhood, and it was a flat to, so the style dates even older than that. The Mrs. Tom Thumb doll, made about the same height as the tiny lady herself bears this style.
Ruth Gibbs made china head dolls with china limbs wearing 19th c. outfits under the Godey’s Ladies Dolls trademark. I have several of the small six-inch versions, and one large 12-inch version with painted jewelry.
Glass eye dolls, men, dolls with teeth and sleeping eyes, a super rare example owned by a friend with sleep eyes, china bonnet heads, all china Frozen Charlottes, dolls with fruit and flowers molded in their hair, these are the rarities of China heads. Limbach made many like this in bisque and china, including the bisque Irish Queen.
Emma Clear, of the legendary Humpty Dumpty Doll Hospital is credited with making the first “modern” china heads, now over 70 years old themselves. These are excellent dolls, and we have several, including the mold for her grape lady. We purchased the ink scarf doll from the Marry Merritt Museum and treasure her. She was an absentee bid, and the hammer came down online for us to our great pleasure. God Bless Noel Barrette auctions!
I have a china bonnet head, about six inches long, with brown eyes that I bought from noted authority Helen Draves. I also have a half doll with gray hear and brown eyes mom bought in about 1983 at a local doll show while I was still in law school.
There are china dolls from Tibet, in traditional costume, of blue and white china that looks delft. There are Japanese heads, very early, that look to some like the famous Nymhemberg, so called 18th c china head which may now be an early twentieth century doll. Lowbrow dolls are featured in Disney’s’ film Child of Glass, and Grace Ingalls allegedly had one, as did the mean Nellie Olesen. One of my Chinese heads has a molded tricorner hat; he represents a British soldier with blonde hair, but Asian features. He came from a store called “Z Best things in Life,” San Jose in the 80s. More on him in With Love from Tin Lizzie. Our Japanese head is blonde, and she resembles the Nymhemberg head, but her features are Asian. Yet, I’ve sent this doll priced at $1000 because someone mistook her for the rare German doll. Many rare dolls a.ear in the Coleman’s books, too. The Merritt Museum’s All Color Book of Dolls features more. Mona Borger and Jan Foulke have written books on china heads with rare examples, too.
Older examples had wooden bodies, and some, with the long Lydia sausage curls resemble Milliners’ models and other early aier mache heads. Metal heads, my area of expertise, were meant to imitate china heads, and Effanbee and other companies made them in vinyl. I thought they would catch on, but they did not. One head in my book on metal dolls I really made of china—the Minerva metal head was reproduced as a china doll! I have an all china Motschmann reproduction and a Schoenhut reproduction made in china and bisque, as well as a penny Wooden; my friend Violet made these in the 70s. I have one modern “china” done in shiny hard plastic.
Early doll books state that about 1 billion china heads were made in Germany alone in the early 19th to mid 20th centuries. Not many are reproduced today; glazing them at least three times and the china underglaze painting makes them expensive dolls to make. They also require skill, more than other dolls.
I made others from salt clay, and glazed them with nail polish, and I made aer dolls of sketches and photographs of others. They live in the Museum dollhouses, and some double as Xmas ornaments. I have seen them featured in Golden Glow of Christmas exhibits and in museums. There was a flat head or MTL doll on display for many years at Ft. Cody in Ogallala, NE, and I have a picture of her. The doll is no longer there.
One head as a printed body in patriotic material. Other dolls have ABC material. Mark Farmer Co, of El Cerrito, CA reproduced many china heads, including the beloved Jennie June, which featured the low brow. One of my low brows survived the 1906 SF earthquake and came from the legendary Indiana Antiques in San Jose many years ago.
I write more about these heads, with sources included in my work in progress, A Cultural History of Dolls where they have their own chapter.
Finally, how do you tell an antique head from a vintage or new head? Ruth Gibbs dolls are very distinctive, and have red hair and other nonantique shades. Their clothes and boxes are labeled. Old china heads have a grayish caste to the china; they have worn marks on their hair, and little specks of kiln dirt that look like beauty marks. New dolls are stark white, or creamy colored. Old ink luster heads like a couple of mine have a pinkish caste to them, created by adding gold power or dust to the glaze. They often have the sausage curls or “covered wagon” style.
Older dolls, at least large ones, have a red line over their eyes to simulate eyelids. The rouge on their cheeks is almost orangey, very ale. Black dolls are coal black; modern are usually chocolate brown glazed like Harriet Tubman. If chied, older dolls have a grayish bisque underneath.
Some very old examples are pressed into molds and you can see the seam. Kling dolls are marked with a bell in a K. Some, dressed and sold in France, may have labels on their clothes. Some dolls come with original wardrobes and are stuffed with sawdust. A few have kid bodies. If they are original and the body and clothes are old and came with the doll, it could well be old.
Motschmann dolls are id 19th century; they have a bisque or china pelvis as well as limbs and heads in the style of antique Japanese Ningyo dolls, see Scott Alan ate and Lea Baten. Some dolls have a cu and saucer joint. Goldsmith dolls are on bodies with cloth boots and altitude corsets. One of my ink luster heads ha her original kid body.
Look for dolls with synthetic clothes; they aren’t old. Also, dolls wearing Velcro or snaps may not be antique.
Modern artists usually incise their names in the back. If you get a rarity like a glass-eyed doll for a song, be careful. I have a Parian with molded hair, flowers, and glass eyes, but she has a tiny hairline flaw, hence I didn’t ay book value. If it’s too pristine, like some “rare” half dolls on the market a few years ago, I’d worry.
Kestner and some of the famous German companies allegedly made china head dolls, or assembled china heads. As with all dolls and antiques, read, look at price guides, online sites and doll shows and sales. Check with museums, bottle collectors, join a group that digs for old china, but get permission from landowners so you don’t trespass. If you can handle old dolls, or visit collectors with newer and antique china heads, do so. Even the common dolls are antiques, and there is a finite number of them. I don’t turn my nose up at them, and neither should you. Rare examples are really fine china. Earlier Toby jugs and majolica figures are the ancestors of these dolls and belong in a good collection. Earthenware dolls with china doll hairdos are nice, too. I have one in highland Mary style made from native Iowa Clay. Some are on the bodies of mechanical dolls, like Autoperipatetikos featured in With Love from Tin Lizzie, and some are dressed as foreign dolls, Scottish highlanders and Breton fisher folk. More books with information on these dolls are in my A Bibliography of Toy and Doll Sources. All are beautiful, and make a great collection. One is tempted to make the request the little girl in the famous doll children’s story makes, “Mommy, buy me a china doll! Do, Mommy, Do!!”