A brief History of the Porcelain Doll

Dolls are perhaps one of the oldest toys in existence. It is natural for children to want to copy their parents. Give a little girl a doll and she will mimic you (sometimes holding up a mirror we are not so happy to look into). Give a little boy a doll and he’ll turn it into his dad the trucker, firefighter or endless variations on a theme.

Wooden dolls, rag dolls, dolls made from spoons and scraps of cloth, the list goes on but Porcelain dolls have a certain fascination that often carries over into adulthood. There are collectors of porcelain dolls across the world. Dolls regularly sell for $1000 at auction and rare examples in good condition have been known to go for huge sums. A case in point is the Bisque doll which sold for $200,000.

What is the difference between Porcelain and Bisque?

Bisque, also known as biscuit, is a type of pottery that is fired as unglazed ceramic. It is fired at a minimum of 1000c. When used as a base for the head of a doll, Bisque is fired once before adding color glaze and then fired a second time to finish the article. Bisque is said to have a more natural skin look than china.

Porcelain is a hard, translucent ceramic made from clay based in Kaolin. Hard paste porcelain is fired at high temperatures whereas soft paste porcelain requires less heat. Bone china is also counted as porcelain and got its name from the ground animal bone which was used in the clay. This tended to be a European style.

The difference between the two is that bisque is unglazed when fired and porcelain is glazed. Unglazed is popular because of its natural look. Both are usually white with color added at a later stage in the process.

When did porcelain dolls become popular?

Around the beginning of the 19th century dolls with china and bisque heads became popular. These were eventually referred to under the collective term ‘porcelain dolls’. China heads were being produced in Germany, France and Denmark in the 1840’s. These were later replaced by the more naturalistic bisque heads during the 1860’s. Bodies for these dolls were originally made from leather or cloth and later evolved to composition bodies.

In 1860 a bisque doll created by the Jumeau factory in France was able to move its neck on a swivel, had a body made from wood or wire which was covered with kid and then stuffed with sawdust. Using bisque for limbs was not the best option due to the weight and fragility of a doll made in this manner.

The French also introduced the ‘Bebe’ doll. This was a major evolution as the dolls produced were made to look like young girls, something that had not been seen before. These dolls were immensely popular, partly for the new concept of a ‘child’ doll but also because of their artistry. Bebe dolls were known for their expressive eyes and the beauty of their skin-tone.

Sadly, Germany began producing dolls that were much cheaper, if not so exquisite and the Bebe doll ceased production in the late 1890’s. Original Bebe dolls are highly collectable. The dolls were produced with both open and closed mouths. The closed mouth dolls with original costumes and perfect condition bodies sell for the greatest prices. Prices for these dolls range from under $2000 for later models to $30,000 for the earliest, excellent condition ‘poupee’ (fashion lady) dolls.

Today porcelain dolls have been replaced as playthings by the plastic-bodied Barbies and all singing. All dancing baby dolls we are used to. A porcelain doll is too precious and too delicate to be a plaything. The collecting of porcelain dolls continues and is a large market.

Porcelain dolls are still being produced but they are almost exclusively made for the collectors market. Most production happens in China and is usually based around themed dolls. Dolls are made to holiday, loving or wise phrases, cultural and social themes. There are countless websites today that deal in the minutiae of porcelain dolls and these beautiful little ladies, and occasionally gentlemen, continue to give pleasure to thousands.