Thursday, August 26, 2010

Guest post: The Role of the Doll in Society Throughout History

by Caity Collins

Caity Collins is a guest blogger for My Dog Ate My Blog and a writer on online schools for Guide to Online Schools.

Dolls have served a role in societies around the world for thousands of years. Whether as a plaything, religious icon, or medicinal prop, cultures throughout time and across the globe have considered dolls a source of utility and enjoyment. While our modern conception of the doll is as a light source of entertainment for young girls, their history is actually quite varied, just as the materials from which they are made and the variety of types found.


There are references of dolls found in societies around the world dating back to prehistoric times, but physical proof of these does not exist, given that they were made out of perishable materials like wood, clay and animal fur. The oldest doll fragment found to date is an alabaster figurine with movable arms dating back to Babylonian times. Other dolls have been discovered in Egyptian tombs, suggesting that these were valued, cherished possessions meant to accompany the deceased into the afterlife.

Simple dolls made from wax, bone, rags or wood have been found in children’s graves from ancient Rome, which lends more evidence to the fact that dolls have been seen as a source of entertainment for thousands of years. Aside from entertainment value, however, dolls played a major role as icons of religious devotion. Dolls were created to resemble gods, goddesses and other deities and were worshipped, feared and revered as true representations of their animate counterparts.

In modern times, dolls were given to young girls to encourage them to mimic motherhood, thereby helping prepare them at an early age for a lifetime of domesticity. They were also created and mass manufactured for fashion purposes: they modeled stylish clothing in miniature scale, or larger scale as mannequins, at tailors’ shops and in department stores. Dolls also served as icons of admiration for little girls as to what they might aspire: the clothes, hairstyles and body shapes became a source of idolatry during certain stages of modern history--particularly the 20th century.

Today, dolls are a huge collector’s item. Depending on the materials, popularity, history, producer, age, rarity and condition, dolls cost anywhere from a few dollars to $25,000-$30,000. Collectors value them for the glimpse they give us into past cultures: what they were worth, what they wore and what materials they employed are among many questions important to doll collectors when considering their value.

Noteworthy Dolls 
African Fertility Dolls are carried by women to help them conceive a child. They are often carried on a woman’s back as a surrogate child, and are also used as a shrine where offerings to fertility spirits are placed.

Hopi Kachina Dolls are not considered toys; they are highly respected religious symbols for this Native American tribe. They are considered to be messengers from the world of the spirits, and bring things like rain, good crops, wealth and fertility to their possessors. They serve as guides for a person’s spiritual life, and are an enormous source of power and wisdom to the Hopi. The dolls are created to look like a particular spirit, and are also used to teach children about the importance of spiritual reflection and belief.

African Ancestor Figure Dolls were constructed out of wood after the appearance of a deceased family member. They are displayed prominently in many African homes as a way of thanking God for prosperity, health and a good year’s harvest.

Voodoo Dolls are modeled to represent the spirit of a particular person. The owner of the doll can talk to or manipulate the doll in order to meet her or his wishes or needs, which often relate to issues of wealth, love, happiness, revenge and more.

Barbie Dolls are arguably the world’s most recognizable and popular fashion doll. Created by Mattel in 1959, they are still an enormous sensation and millions of young girls collect the dolls and their accompanying clothing, dollhouses, miniature vehicles and other possessions with enthusiasm. Critics have accused Mattel over the years of creating an unhealthy role model for female children. Some of the most vocal critiques are that the doll is most often white-skinned, is impossibly thin and underweight in proportion to a life-size counterpart, and encourages materialism. Mattel has responded in kind to many of these complaints, and the history of Barbie herself is an interesting reflection of her times.

Waldorf Dolls are plain, simple cloth dolls that are used by Waldorf schools as an educational tool to encourage creativity and imagination. They have no facial expressions and flexible limbs in order or children to use innovation during their playtime.

Worry Dolls are popular in Guatemala, and are given to children who can whisper their worries to the doll before going to sleep at night. The doll then lets the child sleep peacefully and takes on the role of worrying.

Works Cited:
Dolls by Caroline G. Goodfellow
An Uncommon History of Common Things by Bethanne Kelly Patrick, Henry Petroski, and John Thompson.


  1. Wow, awesome post - there's more to dolls than just a kid's toy. I wish those who think I'm silly at 44 1/2 for carrying around dolls to photograph could read this article.

  2. This is really a lot of great information here! I wonder if I could use one of my BJDs as a Worry Doll... ;)

  3. I thought you already worried about your BJDs with Lily and Nico around, though. ;^)

  4. Well, technically, I worry about some of the BJDs. However, I don't always have a doll dedicated to casting my worries upon. (A doll upon which to cast my worries?) ;)

  5. fantastic article, caity! i especially loved reading about the role of dolls in cultures other than my own - very interesting! :)


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