Half Dolls Stir Memories
Many people aren’t sure what a half doll is or why they were made. But I learned early about these antique treasures.
My grandmother, Sophia Stender O’Malley of Wheeling, was employed for a while as a seamstress after her husband Edgar drowned under the Bellaire Bridge. My mother was just 3 years old at that time. Sophia became skilled at dressing these small dolls at a Wheeling dressmaker shop my mother referred to as “The Shop Unique.”
The dressmaker shop was located in the Wheeling Steel Building, according to my mom (Margaret O’Malley Bierkortte) who actually left me a written account of her memory. Here’s a snippet:
“My mother (Sophia) and the owner of the shop, a lovely Jewish lady from a well-known and well-liked local family, were both widows. The shop had all kinds of little boutique items and both of the ladies were expert seamstresses and could fashion by their talented hands just about anything that was desired by their customers. Some of the most affluent, and some of the nicest, people in our town were regular customers and I am sure they also did work for persons in the surrounding communities since Wheeling was a hub for shopping.”
My mom showed me the examples that she had while I was growing up. I still own a few. One is delicately attired in antique lace. I can imagine my grandmother making her gown. It holds an honored place on my bedroom mantle.
Half dolls are just what the name implies, a doll torso only. Fashioned from porcelain molded into lovely lady heads and shoulders, these figures were then attached to pincushions or other cloth bases. Popular in the early part of the 20th century, half dolls became an elegant accessory in a lady’s room.
Manufactured from 1900-1930, half dolls were not intended for children to use as play things. You can find them today in antique and curiosity shops, usually displayed with jewelry or fine china.
Each half doll is molded with a series of holes at the base of the torso, which allows the figure to be stitched into place on a cloth base. Firmly sewn on a pincushion or perhaps a wire body, these bases were beautifully decorated and became the skirts of the doll’s gown.
Because the gowns were small, the elegant scraps of fabric in the dressmaking trade were put to good use. Some collectors speculate that the half doll itself came about as a way to use scraps of dolls in the doll-making trade.
Half dolls were made of different materials including bisque, paper mache and composition. Most are marked near the base with the country of origin — usually Bavaria, France, Germany or Japan.
Not all half dolls were made into pincushions. Other popular designs for half dolls were powder box tops, brushes, lamps, tea cozies and decorative covers for other feminine items such as perfume.
According to Patricia Smith’s, “Doll Values,” the majority of half dolls were made in Germany. The second most popular country of origin is Japan. Some are numbered and include company names like Goebel, Dressel, Kister & Company, and Heubach.
Standard size half dolls range in height from 3-6 inches. The most desirable half dolls in the antique marketplace are the large figures, perhaps measuring as large as 12 inches.
Values also increase for any size figure that has both arms molded away from the body, or has arms that are jointed at the shoulder. Value also increases if the figure includes a maker’s mark. Very rare halfdolls may be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars but the average is $50 to $300.
Half dolls were shaped in images of children and even men, according to reference books, but I’ve never seen a masculine half doll myself.
Imitating popular fashion, half dolls sport a variety of hairstyles. Though these figures are most commonly found in shops today without clothes attached, the hairstyle was important to the final design of the clothes and fashions that were sewn onto the base of the figure.
For example, a popular theme was a French hairstyle of a 1700-era powdered wig style and this doll would feature an elaborate full gown. Others can be found which show the flapper era hair bob, the Victorian time period, or the Edwardian time frame.
Hats were painted onto the heads of many of these half dolls since hats and scarves were a common part of a ladies’ dress.
The other important feature on half dolls is the arms and their position. Dolls with arms molded away from their bodies are more valuable than those with arms that are part of the torso itself. Another important point is the items held in the figure’s hands, like fans or letters. Rare versions hold puppies or parrots.
Most half dolls feature hand-painted features and blushing cheeks. Many are decorated in brightly painted colors and some have a dramatic art deco look.
Half dolls today can be displayed in much the same way as the original purpose in a ladies’ boudoir or china cabinet. Because they are small and still easy to find at antique shops or shows, they are a perfect collectible to enjoy. You might even dress one to suit your decor.
For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing in care of the News-Register, 1500 Main St., Wheeling, WV 26003.