Because I got so worked up over that post on Wednesday (quel bummer!), I had to take a break to play with my Barbies again. Here’s another Barbie photo shoot, this one featuring three different sleeve lengths on the same coctail dress model. (Susan: do you like any of these, or do you still prefer the black-and-silver number?) Barbie 1958 is in the red short sleeves, Barbie 1962 is in the blue 3/4 length sleeves, and Barbie ca. 1977 is in the seafoam sleeveless dress. Barbie ca. 1977 is having a bad hair day every day for the rest of her life. In my efforts to save the hair, it seems that I have destroyed the hair. Barbie hair is really difficult to cut in any flattering way, because of the weird design of the rooting. It’s just not designed for short hair or layering, I’m afraid! Here’s a horrifying closeup of the damage:
Thanks for all of your kind wishes about family funerals. Since I was back in the ancestral homelands, I had the opportunity to play with my Barbies again, and so can furnish you with more photographs of the couture knitwear collection I introduced to you a few weeks ago. Here, from left to right, are some of the more eccentric items in the collection: Barbie 1962 is wearing my all-time favorite in the collection, the sparky black and silver coctail dress; Barbie 1958 is wearing the swimsuit, Barbie ca. 1977 is wearing the ice skating outfit with angora trim, and Malibu Barbie 1966 is wearing the caftan. I’ve got sad news to report: in the course of dressing up Malibu B., I wrenched off her remaining leg, so she’s
a paraplegic an amputee now! All of them except Barbie 1962 have pretty significant health and/or aesthetic flaws–but more on that later next week. We’re all getting older, after all.
Here’s another photo of my Seven Years’ War lead soldiers and captives, which were a very cool recent birthday present. I’m considering using them on the cover of my next book–they’re much cooler, more ambigous, and more mysterious than the portrait of Esther Wheelwright that hangs in the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS, for short). And, a portrait is what you would already expect in a biography cover, right? Esther commissioned a portrait shortly after she became Mother Superior, and then sent it to relatives in Massachusetts as a remembrance. According to the curator of paintings I consulted with at the MHS in 2001, Anne Bentley, the painting is probably singular in their collection because it’s a portrait of a woman that wasn’t commissioned by her father or husband. It’s pretty good for an amateur portrait–I wish I could show it to you, but I don’t yet have a digital copy, and the MHS doesn’t have all of their paintings on-line. It was likely painted by an artist in the convent, as the Ursulines were known for their artistic excellence in producing elaborately embroidered altarcloths and giltwork items for churches, as well as humbler embroidered objects for the tourist trade.
The MHS has done a wonderful job digitizing a bunch of other documents and images and organizing them into web displays. For example, you can find this most excellent bit of military intelligence there, along with other Seven Years’ War-era maps. Other rich web installations are African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts, and a featured “Object of the Month.”
It’s been a while since I’ve posted any photos of dolls, creepy or otherwise. Here’s the Historiann Barbie family lineup, from left to right, according to the copyrights stamped on their bums: Barbie 1958 (the original!), Barbie 1962, Barbie ca. 1977, and Malibu Barbie 1966. (They’re not in chronological order, because Malibu Barbie is missing a leg and had to be propped up against the window frame. Malibu B. has other health problems–like the creeping melanomas that she’ll surely suffer now that she’s in her 40s and still sporting that kind of a tan.) Barbie 1958’s skin has become discolored by the copper posts of the real earrings she’s worn for 50 years now, and her hair has to be worn on top of her head because she looks rather bald otherwise. (Note her resemblance to Dare Wright and Wright’s creation, Edith, in The Lonely Doll.) Barbie 1962 is holding up better than all of them–she’s a survivor.
Something that we girls of the 1970s and 1980s missed out on was the quality, high-fashion Barbie clothing that was the doll’s signature from her introduction in the U.S. in 1959 until the late 1960s. These Barbies are wearing items from a hand-knitted couture collection from the early 1960s, courtesy of a co-worker of Historiann’s grandmother, whose name is lost to history but whose remarkably detailed handiwork has survived nearly 50 years of children tugging and pulling the garments on and off. (She must have used Barbie-scale knitting needles! And these items are less than a fifth of the entire collection, which includes a bathing suit, an ice-skating outfit, a peignoir, a caftan, and multiple skirts and tops.) Of course, as a child I thought these clothes were dorky and old-fashioned compared to the sleazy, poorly manufactured but more contemporary fashions that Barbie ca. 1977 and Malibu Barbie came with, but then, I used to think Sean Cassidy and Leif Garrett were pretty great, too.
The recent postings on children’s stories and dolls were not just a lame Gen-X nostalgia trip for Historiann (although they were admittedly that too), but rather part of my current research project, which has required an excursion into the new history of childhood (suggested in the New Year’s Eve entry below). It’s back, and this time the best of it is very intertwined with feminist history’s fascination with developing an archaeology of power in the 1990s and early 2000s. Barry Levy’s excellent review essay in the July 2007 William and Mary Quarterly (sorry–for subscribers only) is a great explanation of the older historiography of childhood as well as an explanation of the issues and concerns of the newer literature. He writes that “the sorrow of most early American children’s experience and their own and their parents’ efforts to overcome haunting memories and events” is an assumption that structures the newer literature on early American childhood. Because I’ve written extensively about the experience of Indian captivity for both English captives and their Indian captors, and the book I’m writing is about an English girl taken into captivity by the Abenaki in 1703 at age seven, this emphasis on trauma makes sense to me. But one doesn’t need to seek out subjects who witnessed or experienced warfare in such an intimate way–consider the daily traumas suffered and absorbed by enslaved children, the indignities of being a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century English orphan, or the dislocation and disease of colonial Indian childhood. The colonial world was all about the violent exploitation of the few by the many, and children were at least witnesses to if not also victims of this harsh reality.
Kriste Lindenmeyer recently informed me that there is a new historical journal devoted to this topic, The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, and its inaugural issue is published this month. It features articles on global childhood and a roundtable on “Age as a Category of Historical Analysis,” the title of which is a clear homage to Joan Scott’s signal 1986 article, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (sorry–subscribers only, again!) Pioneers of the new history of childhood like Lindenmeyer, Mary Jo Maynes, and Ping-chen Hsiung have contributed to this journal, and it features several emerging scholars as well, notably Leslie Paris and Laura Lovett, whose first books are hot off the presses. I’m pleased to report that many of this journal’s first contributors (and all of the historians specifically mentioned above) are also on panels on the history of childhood and girlhood that will be presented at the Fourteenth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, June 12-15, 2008, for which I am a Program Committee co-chair. By my count, we’ve got at least eleven panels that deal wholly or in part with the history of childhood, not counting individual papers that might have something to say on the topic. Check out the program here.
In the course of doing some research on childhood in the early eighteenth-century (more on that later), Historiann came across a fascinatingly creepy photograph of a doll that is apparently the oldest rag doll preserved in any American museum. (See the amazing web site developed by Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts.) She became more mysteriously creepy when I learned that her name was Bangwell Putt, and that she was kept by her blind owner over the course of her lifetime that spanned the 1760s through the 1840s:
Bangwell Putt, ca. 1770, at Memorial Hall, Deerfield, Massachusetts (memorialhall.mass.edu)
Bangwell Putt made me think about the Lonely Doll books by the enigmatic oddball Dare Wright, and Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet TV series, which were some of the most interesting artifacts of my own childhood. Both creations were based on the photography of dolls as actors in stories.
Captain Scarlet and Edith, the so-called Lonely Doll, have very little in common, aside from being dolls. Captain Scarlet, who “fate has made indestructible,” is the star officer of Spectrum, an international high-tech defense force that works to save Earth from the evil designs of the Mysterons. (Actually, Spectrum seems for the most part to work for a quasi-United Nations organization.) The stories are pretty transparent Cold War fantasies inspired by James Bond movies–Captain Scarlet looks like Billy Zane (when he still had hair), and his voice is a really bad Cary Grant impersonation. All of the “actors” in Captain Scarlet are Ken- and Barbie-scale dolls (or perhaps marionettes), and the animation is crude compared to the digital perfection studios can offer today. But in a way, their obvious doll-like qualities–their stiffness of movement, their precisely tailored tiny clothes–is what makes the show utterly fascinating. It’s like being a fly on the wall to your own games of childhood make-believe, only with unbelieveably realistic and extremely cool sets, equipment, and accessories–my Barbie FriendShip (ca. 1973)-a-go-go. (Check out this unbelieveable fan site, complete with back stories for all of the characters, Spectrum Headquarters.)
In contrast to Captain Scarlet’s dangerous world of secret agents and faith in technology, Edith and her friends Mr. Bear and Little Bear offer domestic tales in a lower-tech setting in black-and-white still photography. In The Lonely Doll, the first book in the Lonely Doll series, Edith is a felt doll with an extensive wardrobe, and she lives alone in midtown Manhattan in her own apartment with a terrace. The bears just show up on Edith’s terrace one day, and Mr. Bear becomes a surrogate father while Little Bear serves as a surrogate little brother. When left alone one day, Edith and Little Bear discover a secret dressing room full of grown-up women’s clothes that Edith was apparently unaware of although it’s her apartment they all live in. They play dress-up and experiment with lipstick, and when they get caught Mr. Bear administers a thorough spanking (although no one ever explains why Mr. Bear might be keeping a mysterious closet full of women’s clothing and shoes). Once again, it’s not the story that’s so interesting, but rather Dare Wright’s moving and evocative photography of her own childhood doll with the two teddy bears, posed in imaginatively designed sets in Wright’s own midtown apartment. The fact that Edith and Wright shared the same hairstyle in the 1950s and 1960s and had very similar wardrobes is another somewhat disturbing detail–Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll documents all of the ways in which Dare Wright’s creation was very much a projection of herself and her own unresolved family conflicts and childish fantasies.
Perhaps dolls (and our memories of dolls) allow us all to work out family conflicts and childish fantasies. All I know is that when my mother got down my suitcase full of old barbies about five years ago, my sister-in-law and I were magnetically drawn to them. We both reached in and started dressing them up, posing them, and making them “walk” and “talk” again after twenty-some years of neglect.