Toys and toy stores shed light on American society
The November 18, 1918 issue of the Times-Picayune contains not one, but two strange headlines about dolls. Both are presented as straightforward news articles, but neither really is. What they lack in journalistic integrity, though, they make up in historical interest.
One is titled, “Dolls like genuine people now displayed in toy shops.” Truly, this article is a loosely veiled propaganda piece attacking Germany–a bit odd, considering that WWI ended a week before it was published. Apparently, toy stores at this time were beginning to phase out their old stocks of German-made dolls in favor of new American-made ones. An anonymous woman quoted in the article calls the German dolls “old-fashioned, angular, expressionless.” The article goes on to say that, according to several toy department heads, “the sense of being cheated out of a good thing by having been a child too soon is common among the adult public this year.”
The paper makes it clear that the change in dolls, which should only really matter to children, is provoking in full-grown adults alternating senses of unabashed wonder at the lifelike realism of the new dolls and unbridled rage at the inferiority of the ones they grew up with. This is remarkable because German doll makers were, at the time, world-renowned for the quality of their work. In fact, German and American dolls from this time appear to be very similar in quality. It seems easy enough to assume that these American dolls were not, in fact, all that great, but the journalist who wrote this story wanted to play up the U.S.’s perceived superiority over its recent foe.
Oddly enough, the article provides a brief history of the company responsible for these dolls but does not actually give its name or the name of its founder. The facts suggest that these dolls might be products of the American Character Doll Company, founded in New York City by Jacob and Max Brock along with Ed Schaefaer. However, the only available records (which are not necessarily reliable) say that this company was founded in 1919–just too late for this article, whose subject seems to be destined, by design, to remain a mystery.
The other article is called “Doll with natural eyebrows desired by tot,” perhaps in reference to the lifelike dolls that the aforementioned child should theoretically have started to see in shop windows. This article begins with a couple excerpts from children’s letters to Santa, but then quickly turns into an advertisement for the Times-Picayune annual doll and toy fund as well as the Christmas Gift Fund. While this article’s purpose is certainly more wholesome than that of the other, it is not without dark undertones, as the reason for there being two separate funds is racial segregation.
The article makes it painstakingly clear that the funds for white and “negro” children are separate and then abandons its last pretense of journalism to tell readers how they can donate. Finally, it encourages giving to the fund by noting that donors will be acknowledged in the pages of the paper.
Today, the Times-Picayune Doll and Toy Fund continues to provide for New Orleans residents in need each Christmas season, providing toys, school supplies, and food to children ages twelve and under. Today, of course, the organization is integrated, and it’s been a long time since Times-Picayune has published a piece attacking German dolls. This holiday season, there may be anger and strife in the aisles of department stores, but at least it will be confined to fights over Black Friday deals, and violent international conflicts will (hopefully) get left out of our Christmas shopping.
“Dolls like Genuine People Now Displayed in Toy Shops.” Times-Picayune, November 18, 1918.
“Doll with Genuine Eyebrows Desired by Tot.” Times-Picayune, November 18, 1918.
“Bisque doll.” Louisiana Digital Library. Accessed November 12, 2018.
“Times-Picayune Doll and Toy Fund.” Accessed November 12, 2018.