Seriously–I need this doll for my research.

I’m so glad I’m not the only historian with a dolly fetish!  Clio Bluestocking, the intrepid CC instructor and scholar of Frederick Douglass and the women in his family sent in her report about what she did this summer at an NEH institute in Baltimore.  On a field trip to a  Civil War museum in Virginia, she found a Frederick Douglass action figure!  Go check it out.  She writes, “He even has a small copy of The Narrative, as well as a pissed off expression.  Notice, too, that he was on sale.  This picture was not taken in the gift shop, but in my hotel room because, yes, I bought it. (And I just realized how creepy it sounds to say that I bought a Frederick Douglass.)”  This of course connects back to my post on Thursday about Marla Miller opening her book with a discussion of Colonial Barbie, and our discussion in the comments.  Why do some dolls based on historical periods or individuals get produced, and others don’t?  Many of you noted the elite and healthy bias of the historical dolls, compared to the miserable reality of the lives of most people in the past.


Can you see your book on my shelf?

A few years ago, Dr. Mister Historiann found some Seven Years’ War era lead figurines–made by a company that mostly makes lead soldiers, I’m sure, but to their credit they also made some civilian victims of war, too–and he gave them to me for my birthday.  So here are my English captives with their co-captors, who appear to be both Iroquois and Algonquian.  (Unlikely, unless they were Catholic mission Indians, but wev.)  You’ve never seen a 30-something year old woman so excited about a birthday gift as I was that year! 

The Euro-American captives look pretty miserable–no mantuas here, just shifts and petticoats (although the mother sports a mob cap.)  The Indian captors look very well-nourished, which may or may not have been the case by the 1750s, depending on the date and local conditions.  But because these are figures meant to represent wartime, no one looks terribly happy to be there.


0 thoughts on “Seriously–I need this doll for my research.

  1. I absolutely did need that doll for my research!

    Barbie was a fabulous example of kitsch, but these dolls look like someone actually read a book or something when they designed them. I love them.

    The two presenters who came with us on our journey had both written on Gabriel’s Conspiracy — which was part of the reason we were in Richmond. One of our participants is finishing a book on Nat Turner. We all noticed the absence of Gabriel and Nat action figures.

    The gift shops are also fairly bad at providing girls of color with any toy with which they can identify. You may find a Harriet Tubman story, but little else. Not even the Tubman action figure with gun, bloodhound, tent and fugutive family that Catherine Clinton critiqued some time back.

    The presenter who shared my love for gift shops had seen a Benjamin Banneker action figure (that I may or may not have mentioned months ago) somewhere else. He noted that the companion action figures pictured on the back of the box included Phyllis Wheatly, the black man who was on the expedition to the North Pole (name is escaping me), and Bessie Coleman the aviatrix. That seemed like an interesting shift both with the two women and to something a bit more technically and scientifically oriented.

    By the way, I dressed all of my Barbies in rags and sent them on the Underground Railroad, the Overland Trail, on expedition with Native warbands, and down the Mississippi River like Huck Finn. That should have been a warning sign.

    Thank you for the link!


  2. Yeah, where are the dolls or action figures for George Roberts Twelves Hewes, Jane Bartram, Esther Edwards Burr, or Hannah Penn, for that matter? I was in the gift/bookshop at Independence NHP the other day, and it pretty much ran to certified patriots and prominent men at that, with the occasional drummer boy. No diorama of, say, the Fort Wilson Riot (1779), though. The Park Service won’t touch that one for fear of giving visiting Minnesotans the idea that the Revolution in Philadelphia became sort of revolutionary or something like that.

    Actually, there’s an indie band in the Twin Cities named the “Fort Wilson Riot,” which the website says says was “named after an historical riot against food prices that [one of the members] read about in Howard Zinn’s _People’s History of the United States_. Folks living around Independence wouldn’t know much about this.


  3. At the AHA not long ago, a presenter giving a paper that referred to Marie Antoinette had a Marie Antoinette doll. As she demonstrated for the audience, the doll’s head popped off! The panel was really good, but the doll put it over the top 🙂


  4. Those are nice. I think that military history enthusiasts and the companies that supply figures and models to them are kind of looked down on by most professional historians (sometimes for good reasons), but many of them do have a pretty strong (sometimes obsessive) interest in being as accurate as possible with the details of clothing, as well as weapons, tools, etc. When they do make civilian figures, I think they bring at least some of that concern with getting the details correct – certainly more than the makers of most toys and dolls and figurines. (Of course, anything marketed to boys or guys has to be an “action figure”, “figurine”, or “toy”, never, never, NEVER a “doll”.)

    In regards to your earlier post about “Colonial Barbie” and the observation that people want to imagine earlier historical periods as fancy-dress parties where everyone gets to wear sumptuous clothing, I think that some of the bias may come from the fact that the surviving images from most periods of history are more likely to show wealthy people than poor people. Seriously, how many portraits do we have of ordinary farmers or laborers from the colonial period, as opposed to wealthy landowners and merchants?


  5. There are subsets of the general public who are fanatical about accuracy. When I worked in an archive, we had an historical gamer visit (they play table-top role-playing games of various battles, wars, events). He was looking for plans for a particular steam boat that we had in the collection so that he could make a scale model for use in his gaming.


  6. And then there are those “revisions.” Target Dept. Store, back in 2006, featured on its Website a “Franklin Roosevelt” doll in a “Presidential Action Figure” series. Strange, though, the “action figure” looked like Benjamin Franklin, sans kite. Some intrepid Web tsar captured the Webpage at

    The comments are pretty hilarious.

    And “Franklin Roosevelt” spoke! He was authentic! And he was photographed! I append Target’s description of Presidential Action Figures:

    • Talking Action Figure has a 4 min. audio chip allowing it to speak 25 different phrases in the Presidents own Voice!
    • Figures are limited in production and include an individually numbered certificate of authenticity
    • Figures also include a biographical pamphlet that includes rare photos and a comprehensive timeline specific to each figure.
    • Figures come dressed in period correct clothing that has been hand tailored to suit the figure
    • Figure come in an attractive display box however, the figures also include a fully adjustable doll stand for displaying the figure outside of the box

    Is it really true? Is all I know of history false? A little doll shall lead me.


  7. Have you met my tiny Henry VIII and tiny Elizabeth figures? Or my towering Mary, Queen of Scots? They liven up my office, that’s for sure.

    We all need our historical dolls, if only for the inevitable stress relief! (My husband wants to buy a gross-load of Francis I so he can execute the figurines in various experimental ways, seeing how much he’s annoyed by him as a historical figure.)


  8. You know, Mr. Dr. Historiann is totally brilliant at choosing gifts!
    My current dolls include a Shakespeare bobblehead (bobbleheads make everyone look silly) and a Shakespeare finger puppet. I’ve resisted the 6 wives of Henry VIII finger puppets at the British Library all summer… Elizabeth is easy to get and is next on my list.


  9. Susan–you’re right: he really is. I think his secret is starting to think and shop about 3 months in advance! I got the impression he spent many hours trolling the internets looking for those figurines. (And he was very proud of himself.)

    I like the concept of the Six Wives Finger Puppets! (But only if they’re very beautifully made and distinct from one another.) I also like Janice’s outsized Mary Queen of Scots, compared to a tiny Elizabeth and Henry. Perhaps that’s as it should have been in RL? When I visited Scotland several years ago (my one and only trip there), I was struck by how Mary’s Catholicism and the role she plays in Scottish nationalism were clearly in tension, but deftly avoided (for the most part) at historical landmarks. My one regret is that I didn’t get to visit her castle in Edinburgh (Rood House, is it?)


  10. Did any of y’all early modernists have the Six Wives of Henry VIII Clothespin Dolls that you had to sew yourself? They sold a kit at the Tower of London.


  11. Holyrood, I think, although I was in that town a for a total of about 45 minutes a few weeks ago, and didn’t really see much of anything. Did hear a rumor later that week that Holyrood Park is basically the worn down crater of a volcano, which seems somewhat unlikely, but who knows.


  12. In the gift shop at Jamestown, Virginia, there used to be historical action figures for sale. The options included Blackbeard, John Smith, Pocahontas, John Adams, and some others. The Abraham Lincoln doll included a tiny copy of the Gettysburg Address :). I found the website once, so I’ll try to go back and find it.


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