Monday, August 24, 2015

Exploring the Phyllis Hirsch Boyson Artifact Collection

     The week of August 9th – 16th  I attended the Puppeteers of America national festival at the University of Connecticut.  I spent seven days participating in puppetry workshops and attending puppet shows.  I also visited several puppet exhibits around the campus.  When I got to the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, where the “Puppets:  Easy to Make! Fun to Use!” exhibit was housed, this marionette caught my eye so I asked if I could take some photos. 

            As I explained my interest in black dolls to the archivists, they encouraged me to look through the finding aid for the Phyllis Hirsch Boyson Artifacts Collection**.  Boyson trained as a teacher in the mid 1950s.  She loved sharing folk tales from different cultures with her students and frequently used puppets to help act them out.  When she passed away, her family donated over 100 boxes of artifacts and about 6,000 monographs to the Northeast Children's Literature Collection.  

            Boyson sought to provide her students with images representing diverse ethnicities and cultures but most of the dolls and puppets that were commercially available in the early years of her career would be regarded as racist stereotypes today.  Having waded through some radioactive racist waste dumps in other archives, my sense is that Boyson curated her collection by selecting figures that had a more human character than most other dolls and puppets of that era.  There are more modern dolls and puppets dating through the 1960s and 1970s in the collection including some Shindana dolls.  Since my time was limited, however I only requested items from 1940 or earlier.  

            One of the disturbing things about black dolls of the early twentieth century is that they usually depict blacks in menial occupations.  This porter is the 1920s idea of a black action figure:

The figure below is a black Frozen Charlotte doll.  Such dolls take their name from a 19th century ballad about "Fair Charlotte" who froze to death on a sleigh ride because she was too vain to wrap up and cover her pretty dress.  Usually made of china and molded in one piece, Frozen Charlottes were popular from about 1850 to the 1920s.  They frequently populated doll house displays.  While the provenance and purpose of this miniature diorama remain unknown, the black Frozen Charlotte doll may have been a washroom attendant.

Career opportunities were indeed limited for African Americans in the early twentieth century.

While his head and hands may have been commercially manufactured, this 1912 bellhop's cloth body was probably hand made:

Notice that his face and hands are a different color from his body:

This limberjack puppet was also a bellhop:

Although his original control mechanism is missing, puppeteers probably suspended him from these staples in a way that left their hands free:

This way they could make him dance by jiggling their knees while playing a musical instrument.  19th century audiences found black dancers so entertaining that white performers began blacking their faces and copying steps from them.  Thus was born the minstrel show.  Whether he was a toy or a street busker’s prop, a puppet could be just as amusing as a live entertainer.  While this one dates from about 1960, European street performers used this type of puppet as far back as the Middle Ages.

           African American women often worked as childcare providers so for many people the archetypal southern mammy evoked warm memories of being nurtured and comforted.  Thus mammy dolls and figurines of all types were very popular before the Civil Rights movement:

This mammy was a souvenir of New Orleans circa 1940.  She is very soft and cuddly and unlike some of the more grotesque caricatures that existed in that time, she has a friendly face:

            Besides providing childcare, African American women frequently served as cooks.  One of the most famous kitchen mammy characters was Aunt Jemima.  African American comedian and dancer, Billy Kersands wrote a song about “Old Aunt Jemima” in 1875.  Kersands was one of the most acclaimed and highly paid performers on the minstrel circuit and the Aunt Jemima character became a popular staple in minstrel shows.  In 1890 the R.T. Davis Milling Company hired Nancy Green to portray Aunt Jemima as a spokesperson for their pancake mix.  She traveled the country giving cooking demonstrations until her death in 1923.  Several other African American women portrayed Aunt Jemima after Quaker Oats acquired the brand in 1926.  Many licensed products such as dolls and figurines served to further enhance brand recognition and customer loyalty.  This fellow who was one of Aunt Jemima’s children dates from about 1920.

Paper and printed cloth dolls representing Aunt Jemima, her husband Uncle Mose, and two to four children appeared in different versions into the early 1960s.

Wade’s wide red lips impose the minstrel stereotype on his otherwise realistic features.

His tattered clothes suggest that all African Americans were impoverished country yokels but at that time, many did suffer economic hardship in the rural South.

            For decades after the Civil War, many southern states still based their economies on growing cotton with cheap labor.  Sharecropping became a system of debt peonage that effectively confined most freedmen and their families to agricultural occupations.  This clothespin doll circa 1930 depicts a woman transporting a basket of raw cotton on her head:

While her face is a more grotesque caricature than most of the other items in the Boyson collection, she appears to be a handcrafted, rather than mass manufactured product, possibly a West Indian souvenir.

Thus her crude features may reflect lack of artistic skill along with a stereotypical image of black women.

            In contrast this figurine dating from about 1920 renders ethnic facial features with skillful attention to detail despite the stereotypically red lips and cheeks:

Watermelon cultivars are native to Africa. 

Enslaved Africans brought the plant and knowledge of how to grow it to the Americas where it became firmly established in the 17th century. 

Racist stereotypes attributed an inordinate fondness for the fruit to African Americans and often depicted them as watermelon thieves.  Thomas Edison’s fledgling film company released “Watermelon Eating Contest,” an 18 second short featuring two African American men eating watermelon in 1896.  The film proved so popular a 2-minute re-make with four contestants followed in 1900.  When they were not presented in service occupations, African Americans were usually portrayed as lazy and shiftless.  Yet chilling with a juicy slice of watermelon on a hot summer’s day is a human pleasure that cuts across all races, colors, and creeds.  

Still not all black dolls of the era perpetuated racist stereotypes. 

Beginning in the 1930s, Sandra Dogué costumed several series of Petitcollin’s celluloid dolls for the tourist market in the French Caribbean, meticulously reproducing details of traditional costume.  

The two points on Didine’s madras headdress indicate that her heart is taken…

…but would-be suitors can still try!

A Bientôt!

**Images reproduced courtesy of the Phyllis Hirsch Boyson Artifact Collection, Archives & Special Collections, University of Connecticut Libraries.   


  1. Your interest in puppetry led to the discovery of a very interesting collection of Black Americana. These relics, as you so thoroughly researched, are examples of America's insensitive, negative depictions of blacks for entertainment and product marketing.

    The Dogue characters are more realistic representations and illustrate that French doll makers were not so readily inclined to demean and dehumanize an entire ethnic group.


    1. Hi Debbie,

      Pettitcollin was originally an artisanal shop that made hair ornaments. When celluloid became available they begin manufacturing celluloid items of all kinds including hair ornaments and dolls. They became one of the most prominent toy brands in France. The Sandra Dogué dolls used Pettitcollin bodies but were dressed in Dogué's designs. I tried to find out more about her but didn't come up with anything even when I searched in French. Perhaps she had a personal connection to the French West Indies that gave her a more positive perception of people of color.

      My parents gave me a French name and sent me to schools where I would learn French because they had the perception that France was the land of "liberty, equality, and fraternity." In graduate school I studied the ideology of French colonialism and learned that the French were just as racist as the British and Americans. Some of the images of blacks that were common in French advertising of the 19th and early 20th century are very demeaning. If you run a Google image search for "ya bon banania" you will see what I mean.

      I haven't had the chance to research black French dolls but I think Sandra Dogué's dolls are an exception. The French had an eroticized exotic image of West Indian women so Dogué's creations probably appealed to her target market on that level even if she did not intend to present them in this light.

    2. Hi Paulette,

      In addition to the one Sandra Dogué doll, circa 1940s, that is identical to the female doll in the Boyson collection, I own three other Petitcollin dolls. It was not until reading your post, however, that I realized Dogué used Petitcollin dolls for the Caribbean souvenir market.

      I understand that many countries right along with America created racist images of people of African descent and that racism, even to this day is not isolated to American soil.

      I did run the Google search for "ya bon banania." The images for the "chocolate" drink are stereotypical yet pale in comparison to some of America's early advertising black caricatures, dolls, and other items. If you have not yet visited the online Jim Crow Museum, examples of America’s distorted images in black can be seen there:

      Regarding black dolls of the past, America leads all others in racist stereotypical depictions, in my opinion. If you will Google "antique French black doll" and "antique German black doll," I believe you will find more realistic doll representations of African people than stereotypical doll characterizations.


  2. Those are all such interesting pieces with interesting histories - thanks for sharing them!

  3. Wow Paulette, this is a good educational post. The only one that I was familiar with was Aunt Jemima and the doll from New Orleans. I have one that looks similar. Mine is a mass produced one, so she is most likely not archived anywhere like these doll are. Thanks for sharing!!

  4. HI JSarie and Georgia Girl,

    Thanks for your comments. I think that some of us do own dolls that are worth archiving so we might want to do some estate planning and arrange to donate them to institutions that will curate them in ways that serve to educate the public.

  5. The shiftless, trifling image once presented as how American Black people were should have been recognized as false years ago. Why bring over slaves if they did not improve the lot of other?

    I prefer modern dolls because they are less likely to tap into negative stereotypes. However, it is important to be aware of these images because they, too, are part of the American story. People need to know the ugly bits of American history as well as the highlights.

    Thanks for sharing your research ;-)

  6. Hi D7ana,

    Thanks for your comments. One of the things that struck me as I was drafting this post is that most of the dolls portrayed African Americans as workers. While the work was menial, they certainly weren't loafing. I would not want to own any of these dolls but in our time, commercially produced black dolls typically impose a European aesthetic by endowing them with colored eyes and silky hair textures that are not common in the African American population. I was also struck by the fact that Aunt Jemima had a family. Most of us have had to turn to the world of action figures to find black male figures who could be husbands, fathers, and brothers for our ladies. Finding black child dolls in 1:6 scale, especially boys is even more difficult. Many of us have resorted to gender re-assignments. Note that Mattel has been pushing Barbie and her younger sisters for the last few years but they have yet to release black versions of these dolls and play sets. I often wonder what's worse, being bombarded with stereotypical images or not seeing any representation of your identity in popular culture?

    1. Growing up, there were no to few black playscale dolls. My first toys were stuffed animals because my Mom wanted to avoid the excessively girly and the race issue. Mattel has done better in recent years to show a few black dolls. I would appreciate more black dolls from them - especially male dolls, but alas, that is slow to happen. If we look beyond them - and they are a big company ha ha - we can find black dolls like Prettie Girls and the Mixis Emerald and Opal. We have to search for these dolls, yes, but I think that they are available.

      But regarding your question of which is worse, being bombarded with stereotypical images or no images, I would prefer no images. I grew up when seeing a black person in a show would cause excitement and an oh, look response. Then "Good Times" and similar programs came on. In a void, I can say and be how I am. Outsiders cannot tell me what is and is not right for me. With the stereotypes, though, comes the restrictions and "you can't do that" comments. But that's just me ;-)

      Criticism of current black dolls often finds the hair problematic. However, since viewing Chris Rock's Good Hair, I've noticed many young women with bought hair, straight like the dolls, if not straighter. I do not judge, but I would not feel comfortable wearing someone else's hair. (But then again, as has been pointed out, once they "buy" that hair, it is theirs.)

  7. Quite an informative post! I've seen many Black history displays in museums and have always come away feeling overwhelmingly depressed. It's hard to revisit our history but I found these dolls fascinating really.