Colonial Barbie


$24.99 on EBay!

For my women’s history class this fall, I’m assigning Marla Miller’s The Needle’s Eye:  Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (2006) for the first time.  I was looking over my review copy from the press the other day, and to my amazement, her introduction starts with a discussion of “Colonial Barbie,” a Barbie produced in 1995 I had never seen or heard of before.  She writes,

[A]s a women’s historian studying early America I was drawn to her in both amazement and amusement.  Dressed in red, white, and blue, her costume the familiar mantua, petticoat, and mob cap, she would more accurately have been named Revolutionary Barbie, I remember thinking.  Most interesting to me, she held in her hand a piece of needlework.  Barbie was working on a quilt square, it seemed, depicting an American eagle.  Also enclosed in the box was a booklet recounting Barbie’s participation in the American Revolution and explaining the small object she held in her hand.  The title of the volume was “The Messenger Quilt.”  At first, I assumed that the usually adventuresome Barbie was involved in some sort of spy operation, cleverly inscribing and conveying military intelligence through a seemingly innocent quilt.  I was disappointed to learn that the quilt simply, if enthusiastically, celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence with a large red, white, and blue design reading “Happy Birthday, America.”

Poor Barbie–like so many other women in American history, reduced to commemorating the actions of Great Men instead of being a Great Actor herself!  Amy Mittelman also used a photo of Colonial Barbie to connect her visit to the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and to Bloomingdale’s 50th Birthday display for Barbie during a trip to New York City last winter.  Mittelman wrote, “[b]oth the  Colonial Dames and Barbie represent American womanhood and ideals of femininity. Now I just have to figure out how they are connected.”  Miller’s book promises to do the job–I’m looking forward to reading and discussing it with my class.

In the course of finding an image of Colonial Barbie to show you, I came across this collection of apparently hand-made colonial and revolutionary Barbie and Ken outfits.  (Be sure to click through all of the photos–there’s a First Thanksgiving tableau ca. 1621, and a few gowns in the fashions of the 1770s too.  Perhaps the creator will tell us more about this fascinating collection in the comments below?  I can’t show you a preview of these costumes, as the photos on that website are copyrighted.)

0 thoughts on “Colonial Barbie

  1. Squadrato–I’ve long thought it would be an interesting inversion of Barbie’s nominal class markers to do a tableau of “real” women from history using barbie dolls. But, I don’t have confidence in my artistic skills–I can’t sew really, nor could I make very good-looking props and dioramas. (Not better than your average 10- or 11-year old, that is.) But I thought it would be fun to do serf Barbie using a 70s Malibu Barbie (at least the tanned skin would be correct), enslaved Barbie (colonial and Antebellum editions), Lowell Mill Girl Barbie, Triangle Factory Barbie, Shtetel Barbie, etc.

    But in the end, I think it’s more interesting as a concept than it would be to execute in RL.


  2. Someone in American Studies should do a study on American Girl dolls and their influence on how girls think about American history. I have a very good former student who was really into them as a child in the 1980s and 1990s–full collections, etc.

    They are nice dolls, and they attempt to portray more than just upper-class white girls with pretty dresses. But they’re extremely expensive (although I’m sure they and all their accessories and clothing are Made In China). Historians I know feel ambivalent about them when their daughters get into them: on the one hand, you don’t want to discourage an interest in history; on the other, $150 is a big wad to spend on toys a child will play with no more than her other toys and dolls.


  3. I find it interesting that the colonial and Revolutionary Barbie outfits are “dress[es] or gown[s] worn by any young lady of the time.” Yes, every young lady wore silk and chintz.

    Then again, that’s an issue of “lady-hood” in the era.

    Sewing for the nation appears to be a consistent theme since Betsy Ross and Republican Mothers and female seminarians. The Works Progress Administration in the 1930s engaged women in sewing, bookbinding, and handicraft projects. See this image of girls sporting “WPA clothing” and holding counterpane dolls:

    Click to “Contents” to look through the entire Milwaukee Handicraft Project. Foreign and storybook dolls are also featured–interesting cultural history there.

    Historiann, I’d be interested in what else you’re cooking up (pun kinda intended) for your women’s history course.


  4. Red Ken looks like Gov. Andros has dispatched him from Boston to New York in April 1689, to deny rumors circulating there that James II had recently been toppled by the Hot Protestants in England. As in,… o.k., but what’s Plan B if they don’t buy Plan A?

    A good candidate for Colonial Barbie would be Mary Carleton from the 1660s and ’70s, a shape-shifter and ocean-crosser if there ever was one.


  5. Thanks, History Maven: yes, everyone in history was so dressed up all of the time! They practically gardened in pumps.

    Laurel Ulrich wrote about the sentamentalism associated with colonial & Revolutionary women’s needlework in the 19th and 20th centuries. I think it has a lot to do with creating an appropriately feminine and domesticated vision of women in the past–part of that erasure of women from history that we were discussing last week. I hope Miller’s book touches on this, too.

    Here’s the rest of my reading list for my American women’s history 1800, not including some other articles and book chapters:

    1. Theda Perdue, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 (1998)
    2. Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2004)
    3. Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indian Women and French Men (2001)
    4. Clare Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution (2006)

    Apparently, I’m giving a lecture on “gender and material culture” at some point, so I’d love some direction from you!


  6. And, Indyanna–you’re right. Ken looked more late 17th than early 17th C in his costume.

    Truth is, most “colonial” clothing was pretty incredibly dirty, utilitarian, and well-worn–think lots of stinky, and lousy (literally!) linen shifts tucked into even dirtier and stinkier trousers and petticoats. In other words, not the kind of stuff that would really attract little girls eager to play dress-up with their dolls. (Unless your little girl is a little perverse, or would enjoy the subversive anti-Barbie aspect of putting Barbie in filthy rags.)


  7. Historiann–FWIW, I think that these books are about the right level of challenge for the course you describe. Some of it depends on the number of course meetings you have–you are on semesters, right?–and how much time you can devote to discussing each book, but this seems like a great list. I am still partial to Kathleen Brown’s book on early Virginia for my colonial history class, but I must admit that it was tough sledding for some of the students the four times I have assigned it. For those that really “got” it, it’s the best book I assign. But the ratio of those who get it to those who don’t is a little skewed.

    I have one question (which I hope doesn’t hijack the thread too much)–do you assign articles/chapters on gender theory written by non-historians? If so, how do you handle integrating these theoretical perspectives into a history class? This is something I often struggle with in my colonial and religious history classes, when I want to describe the evolution of race, gender, and religion are historical constructs. In my experience, history majors–much like many history professors, unfortunately–can be theory averse.

    And my nieces *love* the American Girl series. My sister doesn’t love the price, but does enjoy fostering their interest in history and their imagination. Of course, the fact that their uncle teaches about “olden times” holds no interest for them at all.


  8. John–I use ch. 1 from Gender Trouble all of the time. I think the logic is evident to History majors (and certainly to the women’s studies concentrators.) Other than that I don’t do too much theory–there are so many varied real-life examples of different performances of gender in early America that I prefer they get into the empirical evidence ASAP.

    Brown’s article on T. Hall is great to assign with Judith Butler.

    And, Susan: who wants to think (or write) about poor people and their labor and miseries? It’s so much more fun to think about history as a really cool dress-up party.


  9. Rebel Lettriste–I’m glad you see the fun! The only thing that would truly make these projects burdensome is that Barbie’s body is really completely historically inaccurate. Most of the women in your scenarios and mine would be emaciated and/or more muscular than Barbie is, and of course wouldn’t have such a prominent bust line.

    Her body really is a kind of 1950s-60s hybrid ideal not found in nature: Marilyn Monroe on top, Twiggy on the bottom.


  10. Susan–your question is right on. It reminds me of my favorite scene from a movie I love, _Bull Durham_. After Annie suggests that in a former lifetime she was either Francis of Assisi or Catherine the Great, Crash asks “How come in former lifetimes, everybody is someone famous? How come nobody ever says they were Joe Schmo?”


  11. The Barbie and Ken from the movie, “The Lord of the Rings” with Ken as Legolas
    and Barbie as Galadriel .
    These outfits show the type of clothes worn during Midlevel times. The Renaissance clothes (like the Barbie that was said to be in Medieval clothes) weren’t around till ending of the Plague. Since so many people died the merchants and many more were able to dress finer. The nobility started to dress in fancier clothes with velvets, lace and other luxury fabrics to compare to the rising middle class in Europe. I found this info when I was helping my daughter do her report on the plague for 4th grade. They were suppose to talk about a disease that no longer exists or is helped with modern medicine. I have always been interested in the history of fashion. I’m selling Barbies on ebay because I love everything about the dolls, especially the detailed clothes.
    Where is your class being given?


  12. Historiann,

    Some readings/sources/ideas for women & material culture for your course, set here in southeastern PA: Adrienne Hood, _The Weaver’s Craft: Cloth, Commerce and Industry in Early Pennsylvania_, and Joan Jensen, _Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850_. Plus, bits and pieces in the entirely-too-easy-to-be overlooked work of the late Lucy Simler, scattered here and there in articles and chapters.

    A great book (but non m.c.) if your course goes up that far is Lori Ginzberg’s _Untidy Origins: A Story of Women’s Rights in Antebellum New York_ (2005, UNC Press), set in the far wilds of the northern Adirondacks two years before Seneca Falls. A brilliant piece of empirical reconstruction, and it teaches well too.


  13. I’m teaching Miller’s book in the fall too! I have been a little worried it would be too obscure for them, but feel reassured that you’re also taking the plunge. I have taught Lyons and Perdue before as well, both got high praise from students. Brown I’ve taught to grad students, but would be reluctant to try on undergrads…


  14. I don’t know- I think we might have a cash cow here with all of these Barbie ideas. But I guess I was one of those perverse children that mutilated my Barbies and popped their heads off. I would really like to see Plague Barbie.

    On the other hand, I took immaculate care of my American Girls dolls when I was little, which I still have. I credit my interest in history and material culture to those stories and dolls.

    Historiann- what about Susan Stabile’s new book Memory’s Daughters? That had quite a bit about gender and material culture and was not that difficult of a read.


  15. How about Slut Barbie? Thanks to the early-modern double meaning she could be either a maidservant or a prostitute – twice the play value! If Ken had a Samuel Pepys outfit she would have to be both kinds of slut at once, and then he could beat her and lock her in the cellar. There could be a whole range of accessories to punish her for the sexual transgressions that were forced on her by privileged men: cage, whipping post, stocks, pillory, ducking stool, scold’s bridle etc.


  16. In Marla Miller’s work you’ve a sterling example of gender and material culture studies done right.

    You may wish to prep your lecture by looking at the following:

    Carol Devens,“Separate Confrontations: Gender as a Factor in Indian Adaptation to European Colonization in New France,” American Quarterly, 1986 (haven’t read the book on Native American women and the Great Lakes missions, but in this essay she sees how gender roles changed in Native American villages through the trade of European material goods)

    John Styles and Amanda Vickery, ed., Gender, Taste, and Material Culture in Britain and North America, 1700-1830 (about half the essays are based on North American consumption and material culture; excellent images)

    Just a start.


  17. The wealth thing reminds me of a conversation I overheard in an English record office many years ago. A couple were doing family history, and as they read through the relevant parish register, one said to the other, “That couldn’t be him, he’s only a laborer”. I restrained myself from saying “Oh, did you think your ancestor was the King of England”, or even explaining the varied meanings of “laborer”.


  18. Rachel and Thomas Rex–I think all girls go through a Barbie mutilation stage. I think there’s even scholarship on the aggression girls take out on Barbie once they get to ages 10-12 or so. We used to pile naked Barbies up on a turntable (this was the age of vinyl, after all), and then gradually accelerate from 33, to 45, to 78 RPM. Somewhere between 45 and 78 they’d go flying around the room. Hillarious! (If you’re an 11-year old girl.)

    Thanks, too, to Indyanna and History Maven for the material culture tips. I know Hood’s book–I’ll take another look at that. Carol Devens is great! As for assigning K. Brown’s first book to undergrads: it’s kind of a beast. I have found that Kirsten Fischer’s book Suspect Relations (2002) goes over better–it makes some of the same points AND does innovative things with sexuality that Brown doesn’t, and all in under 200 pages.

    Katharine–thanks for stopping by to explain Medieval Barbie. Your artistry is impressive!

    Susan: yes, every genealogist hopes to find a secret noble ancestor. I don’t know much about my genealogy, but of what I know I’m perfectly happy not to have had wealthy or distinguished ancestors. In the U.S., ancestors like that tend to have owned slaves or have oppressed the masses in some way, so obscurity is just fine by me.

    And, Gavin: great idea for Slut Barbie, but I’m a little creeped out by how into it you seem to be…!


  19. I love Plague Barbie. Think of the buboes!

    Also, the medievalist in me wants “anchoress” Barbie–she comes with her own cell.

    As well as: “screaming woman at the end of Beowulf lamenting her upcoming rape and abduction by hostile forces” Barbie.

    It’s true, Barbie’s body type totally doesn’t occur in nature. That’s what makes it so … funny.

    (And FWIW, I adored my Barbies as a girl. How or why I do not know, but many enjoyable hours were had dressing her up. I just predated the American Girl phenomenon.)


  20. Jumping in late here. I was never had Barbies, my mom thought they would destroy my body image or something.

    I did, however, read the American Girl Doll books. I thought the stories were okay, but I liked the history section in the back better. My favorite was Samantha not because she was rich but because she had a poor little friend who worked in a factory. So I guess you could say I liked Samantha’s friend best. I can still see the photographs of the factory workers in the back of the book. My populist sympathies started very young.

    I never had a doll though. My mother thought they were too expensive (about $100). She said I could have one if I saved enough money. Well, when I was ten or eleven, I saved enough money and bought a bike instead. Anyway, my point is that although the dolls give a somewhat unrealistic depiction of history, I think they do help get young girls interested in history.

    Also, in recent years, the series has been better about including non-white girls. There is Addie, a former slave, and Josefina, a young Spanish girl living in New Mexico before the Mexican-American war.


  21. All these Barbie memories! I’m afraid my childhood was all the poorer. My parents couldn’t afford a Barbie, and I received on one Christmas a cheaper “Misty” doll. Wore Barbie’s clothes, but the shoes didn’t fit, so Misty had to wear white shoes all through the fashion year. (Egads!) Misty came with magic markers that colored her hair. That was cool.

    I have to say, though, I didn’t much care for playing with dolls. I spent more time organizing what garments I received for Misty (by type, by color, etc., etc.). Still have them. Curatorial from the very start.

    I do find it interesting, in retrospect, that once I possessed a Barbie-like doll, I received presents of Barbie clothing. It was like all my female relatives wanted to play with the doll. Shopping for fashion in miniature.


  22. I’m not going to say whether or not I have any experience in this department, but I think that denying a toy to a child in general just stokes their desire for it, and they build it up to being more of a big deal than it really is. Good for you, Mary, for figuring out that you’d get more bang for your buck with a bike than with an AG doll.

    I played with Barbies on and off through girlhood, but like History Maven, it was more about the clothes than the doll itself. And, I had the good fortune to inherit–or, curate for a few years, as it were–a wonderful collection of tiny, hand-knitted and croched playscale-sized clothes made ca. 1959-1963. In the 1970s these seemed hopelessly dorky and out-of-date, but now they’re soooo cool. It’s like Mad Men, only without the dreadful men, when I play Barbies back at my parents’ house now! (You can see samples from this collection here, here, and here.)


  23. “but I’m a little creeped out by how into it you seem to be…!”

    I guess I’m not going to get out of this by saying “that’s just how it was back then” or “look how far we’ve progressed”. 😉

    I’m pretty creeped out by what a lecherous abusive sex-pest Samuel Pepys was, especially having been brought up to think of him as a nice man who wrote about nice things.


  24. Historiann: I’m sorry if I creeped you or anyone else out. When I typed my second comment above I assumed that you were joking, but in the couple of hours I’ve been offline I thought about it more carefully and realised that you might not be, and that even if you were it was still a valid criticism and something I need to consider. My first comment was always likely to look more creepy coming from a man than from a woman. Us men do need to keep asking ourselves awkward questions about how we eroticize the mistreatment of women.


  25. Oh, Gavin–I was only teasing you a little about saying that you creeped me out! But perhaps my post today is what made you reconsider. Rest assured, you were not at all someone in mind when I wrote today’s post, and I took the comment you left in response in good humor.


  26. As others have said, how funny that Colonial Woman is only seen as the silk-clad lady of leisure who embroiders all day, ignoring the thousands of others who weren’t so well off…

    The funny thing about my family history is that everyone is quite proud of some guy ten generations back who owned lots of property around Boston before the Revolutionary War (~1760), including chunks of land around Faneuil Hall. Nothing of the great fortune remains except for a few nice antique chairs, but there’s a lot of family pride about that one guy, and almost no information about the other 511 men and women who contributed to my ancestry. (Of course, it’s easier to find out about family who happened to have some measure of resources — they bought or sold land, they got mentioned in the papers upon their marriage, they counted in the census — than it is to learn anything about the life of John Smith the farm laborer who didn’t do anything remarkable enough to get noticed by history.)


  27. And I never got an American Girl doll either (my mother just laughed when she saw the price) — but be sure that I read every one of those catalogs from cover to cover, learning as many details of the Girls’ stories as I could (and drooling over the adorable accessories). They felt a lot more substantial and approachable than Barbie’s Beach House or Barbie’s Convertible.


  28. I think outright banning toys is counterproductive too. However, I was relatively uninterested in Barbies so I didn’t care much. But my 20-year sister (who loves Barbies) still talks bitterly about the Barbie ban.

    Eventually, my mon did give in and let my two youngest sisters have Barbies; I guess she finally realized that one toy wasn’t powerful enough to shape one’s body image.


  29. Mary–good points. Of the women I know who have a messed-up relationship with their bodies, it was in fact their parents who loom large in messing them up. (The parents who asked, “Do you really think you NEED butter on that toast?”)

    And, Erica: I like your mother’s style. A $100 doll (for children to play with) deserves to be laughed at!


  30. Ugh. Things like that are so disturbing Historiann! I’ve seen it too. I had a friend in high school whose father offered to pay her to lose weight. He thought she should lose 40 pounds and offered some riduclous reward at the end (a couple hundred bucks I think). Talk about warped.


  31. Pingback: Seriously–I need this doll for my research : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  32. Pingback: Knitting Clio is back from vacation « Knitting Clio

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