antique textiles Historical Dolls

The Small Woman

Just out, my article in ‘PieceWork’, Fall 2019:

A piece about the Donner Party’s smallest and most unlikely survivor…

Gauzy Georgian dresses (doll, but not her clothes, may date from this period).  From Ackerman’s Repository, 1801.  Picture in my own collection.


Just out, my article in ‘PieceWork’, Fall 2019.


Dolls are the clothing and social historian’s best friends. Their clothes were so tiny, it was usually less effort to make brand new dresses or coats, rather than alter existing items of costume.  Unfashionable dolls’ clothes were more likely to be kept than outmoded human clothing as many dolls had extensive wardrobes.  So they tell a tale.

Disclaimer: I was not a ‘dolly’ person even as a child.  Apart from dolls’ house dolls which I always loved. As an adult, I fell in love with eighteenth and nineteenth century papier mache and wooden “primitive” dolls.  I still find china dolls with actual hair (usually in ringlets)  and eyes that snap shut with a click, utterly creepy.  Maybe due to the utterly terrifying Marchpane  – see here:


Like patchwork quilts, dolls’ dresses were often made from homely scraps of everyday fabric that would otherwise have been utterly lost to posterity.  Fabrics which were manufactured in thousands of metres, now may only survive as a single scrap in a quilt, or as a doll’s dress. Conversely, dolls’ clothing might also be made from special scraps of tarlatan, silk, mesh and ribbons – tiny scraps of high status fabrics to make miniature ball gowns, wedding dresses and so on.  And these are interesting to document, as well.

So looking at them, we can learn much about our ancestors’ colour choices, design, details like woven ribbons and buttons and fastenings, as well as about the cut or broad style of clothing at a given period.

Many simple wooden dolls from Georgian times onwards, were sold without clothing so the child could dress them.  But sometimes, they came with clothes glued onto them or which they were sewn into.  The vast majority of wooden dolls were made in the remote region of Germany once called Val Gardena  and these were exported all over Europe and America; the United Kingdom was a huge market for these dolls.  (They became known as Grödner Tal dolls though in England were often, confusingly, called ‘Dutch dolls’ and sometimes ‘Penny dolls’).

PieceWork, Fall, 2019

In the current issue of ‘PieceWork’ (Fall, 2019), I’ve written about a special doll – an incredible survivor of the horrific and infamous 1846 Donner Party incident; Patty Reed’s dolls’ house doll (imaginatively named ‘Dolly’).  I won’t write too much here as you can go to or a shop that stocks PieceWork, to find it and read for yourself.  This tiny 3 1/2 inch wooden, peg-jointed doll was the only toy to survive the Donner incident, hidden in Patty’s clothing.  I hope I did her – and Patty, and all the victims and survivors – justice.

I stumbled on Dolly’s story when researching someone else entirely: the Donner Party’s lone Brit – Yorkshireman, John Denton.  John was a Sheffield steelworker who somehow only a couple of years after emigrating from England ended up on the trail from Springfield, Illinois to a new life in California.

Although the story is now seen as an archetype of Americana,  it’s interesting that there were a number of recent (and not so recent) immigrants in the Donner Party and the voices round the camp fires on the trail would have had accents from across Europe and beyond. The wagon train was an eclectic (and not atypical) mix of American migrants and recent immigrants – Patty’s father was a first generation immigrant from Northern Ireland; and amongst the party as well as the Englishman, were folk from Ireland, Belgium, Germany and the party also included courageous Miwok native Americans who had been sent out to help.

Grodner Tal doll, peg jointed with simple arms and legs (no hands or feet). Wearing clothing probably made by a child (Own collection)

Patty Reed’s grandma, Sarah Keyes, (1776 – 1846), was the first to die on the trail. She had moved from Virginia to Illinois before she bravely decided, as an elderly woman with TB, to join the trek to California.  It is thought that Dolly was given to Patty by her grandma. As we have seen when studying tape looms, Virginia had strong links with Europe – the tape looms there often resembled English ones, strongly. Dolls may have been amongst the items commonly imported from Europe, to the US.  It’s possible Dolly was a German Grödner Tal doll of the cheaper variety (peg not ball joints), imported to Virginia at some point years before 1840.  My feeling is she may be from the Georgian period and re-dressed more fashionably in the 1840s by Patty.   Throughout the 19thc, Grödner Tal dolls often wore gauzy fabrics, like those fashionable at turn of the 18thc/19thc.  Dolly seems to be dressed by a child, in this typical way.

The dolls’ house she came from, and her fellow inmates, were hastily abandoned in the desert, during the journey. Patty’s family had been travelling in the grandest wagon of them all; one nicknamed ‘The Palace’.  The Palace and almost all its contents were fated never to reach their destination.

I discuss Dolly’s clothing in more detail in the article.

Penny doll in vintage knitting pattern photo shoot. From my own collection.

In the 1840s, toys were seen as a frippery and hard to justify unless they had some didactic role. Maybe as a result of this, dolls were perceived as potentially ‘educational’.  They were “‘…objects for the development of maternal sentiments… industrial tastes and the early unfolding of the small woman’s domestic capabilities… [a girl] will have gathered for herself, while constructing dolly’s pretty wardrobe, that knowledge of the subtle charm of form, colour, fabric and fashioning… [so]…she may… become a leader of style and a belle in the fashionable world…'”  [Delineator, 1878, quoted in ‘The Collector’s Book of Dolls’ Clothes: Costumes in Minature’, Dorothy S., Elizabeth A., and Evelyn J. Coleman, p.167., Hale, 1976].

I’ll let that quote hang in the air. No commentary required.

From the same publication (which was one of the early producers of commercial dolls’ clothing patterns):

“‘… it is the cutting and making of dolls’ clothing that will be the easiest and surest method of reaching that comfortable state of independence…'”


In my forthcoming book, ‘Their Darkest Materials’, I have written a chapter about child labour and another about the 19thc concept of the ‘needlewoman’. One great resource for me was Dickens’ late novel ‘Our Mutual Friend’ where he introduced the character of Jenny Wren; the eccentric, motherless 12 year old  – disabled child of an alcoholic father.  As a fellow eccentric, motherless child I have some love for her.

Jenny Wren, the doll’s dressmaker. CREDIT: David Hunt

Jenny had to support the household by making fashionable dolls’ clothes for wealthy children – often working day and night sewing ‘fast fashion’ dolls’ clothing .  Jenny is the parent to her feckless father who gets upto mischief when she had to leave him unsupervised when she goes out  observing the aristocrats going into and leaving assembly rooms. Jenny darts around London like paparazzi – trying to catch glimpses of the fashionably attired, so she can then rush home to record the latest fashions making doll sized replicas to sell to her clients.

Even during her father’s funeral (which her labour pays for), Jenny isn’t free from professional concerns – realising that a vicar outfit would be a fabulous addition to her bridal dolls clothing range.

The nineteenth century doll was both an incredible, powerful solace to a child – as Patty Reed’s story shows – and also a harsh martinet.

In ‘The Doll and her Friends: Or Memoirs of the Lady Seraphina’ (Julia Charlotte Maitland), middle class doll owners could simply play with their dolls, or if they did sew for them, they’d make their clothes badly, using sequins and shiny things to cover sewing mistakes. When the doll, Seraphina,  looked tatty, she was passed on to a servant’s daughter, Susan. Working class girls were expected to use even their leisure time productively; the doll was not a plaything but a practice for the hard grind of adult life.  Susan had to sew exquisite clothing, even tiny stays for the doll,  so she could impress the bigwigs who employed her mother and become their minimum wage mantua maker. The dolls’ clothes the wealthy children made Seraphina were flashy and trashy – Susan’s handiwork was plain sewing but very well done.

6″ milliners’ doll – typically they had kidskin bodies, and red shoes. This doll was carved by Adina Huckins and painted by Happy Herbert.  Own collection.

Mantua makers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often had dolls to display their art. Sometimes these were dolls with wooden or papier mache faces and limbs on a cloth or kid leather body.  The idea was, a sewist could display their skill without having to spend a fortune on fabric – with a doll, they could have a portable exemplar of the latest fashions. Sometimes these were displayed in shop windows, and are often called ‘milliners’ dolls’ by collectors.  (See below for link to interesting blog piece about milliners’ – also called mantua makers’ – dolls in the late 18thc.

Both a symbol of feminity and despised as a mere ‘girls’ plaything’ with nothing to tell the serious (in the past, usually male) historian – the humble doll deserves more recognition and still has lessons to teach us.  Even if those lessons are no longer regarding pin tucks and applying lace trimmings neatly enough to impress the wealthy.  The ‘small woman’ made from wood, papier mache or china and cloth, might be a way to survive, to support yourself, for some women and children in the nineteenth century.

Women were literally diminished, seen as ‘small’ or ‘little’ – Dickens himself is not above writing women as hapless, useless little ‘china dolls’ (see Dora in ‘David Copperfield’). Yet he also gave us Jenny, the ‘small woman’ who had to support a grown man, negotiating an hostile world where she was locked out from enjoying a childhood with other children, isolated by her father’s alcoholism and her disability – even so she remained an indomitable, emotionally powerful force of nature; the needle her sword to fight her way out of her loneliness and poverty.


Close up, Ackerman’s Repository, 1801. Many penny dolls wore dresses inspired by this period which was that of Sarah Keyes’ youth. Sarah is thought to have given Dolly to Patty Reed.  Own collection.



Mantua makers’ dolls – Two Nerdy History Girls

The Collector’s Book of Dolls’ Clothes: Costumes in Miniature 1700 – 1929, Dorothy S., Elizabeth A., and Evelyn J. Coleman

Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens, 1997 edition, first published 1864

Across The Plains in the Donner Party,  Virginia Reed Murphy

The Best Land Under Heaven: the Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, Michael Wallis






3 replies on “The Small Woman”

Hi Penny,
I have had an article of yours (2015) in my favorites for years and have just been digging away at them when I began to realize that you are Penny from Hitty girls! How fun!!

I am awaiting my “hard copy” of Piecework to arrive in the postal mail and will be most eager to read your article, of which you have been writing about in our message board at HGirls.

It’s so good to have “found” your blog. I look forward to reading your site, bit by bit over the coming days! I’ve enjoyed it all so far.

Becky J


This is fascinating. I love reading your research into such eclectic topics. This find from the Donner party reminds us that dolls were so precious to their children.

On a side note, from the 15th c ‘Deutsch’ referred to all the countries in the Holy Roman Empire, including of course, Holland (until they got all rude about it and said NO). Which is why in both America and England the word Dutch describes German things, too.

AND: “Val Gardena/Grödner Tal
Part of the autonomous region Alto Adige/Southern Tyrol in Italy.” Which has been famous from the 16th c for its wood carving, especially of religious figures, chess sets and dolls.

See what your wonderful post did? Interesting in and of itself but also feeds my love finding all this ancillary information.

Thank you! Look forward to reading the article in Piecework.


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