Categorized | Arts, Community

Vintage Dolls Have Stories to Tell

Posted on 30 June 2011

Doll photos 934

By Annette Hinkle

For as long as there have been children, there have been dolls. From homemade varieties to figures that reflect current fads, what a child plays with says a lot — not only about children — but society as well.

This weekend the Eastville Community Historical Society opens an exhibit of vintage and commemorative black dolls and figures in honor of their 30th anniversary. The show features 120 dolls encompassing a wide range of African-American, Pan-American and Caribbean themes as well as African-American pop-culture figures like Dennis Rodman, Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson from his “Thriller” days. The exhibit is culled from the joint collection of Martin Butler and his brother Michael, who organized the show and explains how the whole thing started.

“I didn’t start out to be a collector of dolls per se,” explains Butler, a member of the historical society’s board of directors. “It grew out of collecting black memorabilia and black books when I was living in the city.”

“I would go to antique stores and buy salt and pepper shakers and some of the dish clothes with black images on them,” he said. “I began collecting dolls 20 years ago. Things they would call dolls in my research would be more utilitarian — a figure with a dinner bell in a serving outfit made of ceramic or bisque — more of display piece.”

“You go to a store and there’s this image sitting there, you don’t want to leave it behind,” says Butler who adds that black stereotypes are typical of pieces from the first part of the 20th century and are often of African natives or black servants.

“In the 1890s, Germany was big manufacturer of toys and dolls and it was a more generalized type of figure — usually the mammy types or the picaninny,” explains Butler. “None were really positive. You certainly never saw these things in my grandmother’s or my mother’s house.”

But in recent decades, black memorabilia has become wildly popular and Butler feels that the resentment earlier generations may have attached to such imagery is not shared by today’s collectors.

“I think the further one moves from stereotypes the more you can look at them and have a less personalized experience,” he says. “They become iconographic.”

The idea that the way in which dolls were used to portray black society could, in fact, affect the perception of black children came to light in the 1940s when psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark used dolls to explore beliefs about race.

“Their study was not about dolls, but more about getting to the root of self imagery with black children,” says Butler. “They used dolls in the study to define characteristics. The white doll was seen as good and the black doll was bad. They realized they needed more positive images for black children, not just dolls, but other toys and games.”

The toy industry did, in fact, began to change as the mid-20th century approached. Recognizing the potential, more mass produced black dolls entered the mainstream market, though Butler notes these modern dolls had brown faces, but with Caucasian features.

It was really pop-culture and the advent of television that took the production of African-American dolls to the next level. The groundbreaking TV series Julia premiered in 1968 and starred Diahann Carroll as an African-American nurse raising her son as a single mother. It was the first show to feature a black character in a non-stereotypical role and it spun off a whole line of products, including lunch boxes and dolls.

“Images on TV brought a sea change in people’s thinking. That was a major push,” he says. “I remember being in elementary school when there were so few black images on TV, you’d call your friends and say, ‘Did you see Ella Fitzgerald on Ed Sullivan?”

Other shows followed through the 1970s and beyond, and with them came dolls — though they were more of the novelty variety than classic baby dolls. Among Butler’s dolls is a J.J. Evans figure inspired by the sitcom “Good Times.” Butler also has a doll from the Flip Wilson show, one of the first variety shows hosted by an African-American. The two sided doll is Flip on one side and Geraldine, his cross-dressing alter-ego, on the other.

But Martin’s favorite doll? A 1930s Effanbee marionette designed by the famous puppeteer Virginia Austin Curtis which he bought at a yard sale.

“I have the original doll with bare feet,” explains Butler. “The NAACP objected because they felt they portrayed a poor image so the later one had shoes. Mine also has the box. I also have poster and little tickets you would use for your own show.”

The Black Doll exhibit opens Sunday, July 3 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Eastville Community Historical Society, 139 Hampton Street, Sag Harbor and remains on view through mid-August.

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16 Responses to “Vintage Dolls Have Stories to Tell”

  1. LaVerne says:

    What is Butler’s full name and where is Sag Harbor? I am a collector and doll artist who produced for many years “Holiday Festival of Black dolls” and I would like very much to meet this wonderful person (Butler).

  2. Wylde says:

    I want to buy every doll in that photo!

  3. Bonnie says:

    Yes, who is this person, how do we reach him, where is Sag Harbor, etc., etc.

    While the antique dolls are very interesting and telling of the past, today there are beautiful Black Dolls available in the image of our children, and the first and only line of adoreable, high quality soft, plush black dolls, “Kip & K’Noodle”, which can be viewed at

    The famous test that everyone talks about with the Black kids picking the white dolls has been totally skewed! The black kids chose the white dolls becasue the Black dolls were UGLY and SCARY looking. Had the dolls been beautiful like the black children, they would have selected them. And had the White dolls been ugly and scary looking they would have chosen the Black dolls!!!!

  4. Wylde says:

    @ Bonnie: ‘Nuff said

  5. Gerald says:

    I’ve been collecting black doll for over 35 years and the one doll I treasure the most is my Saralee doll made to look like us, sold by the Ideal toy company.

  6. D. Garrett says:

    I enjoyed reading about this collection and would love to see the exhibit.

    D. Garrett

  7. T. Crawford says:

    In reply to Bonnie,

    The dolls used in the experiment were exactly the SAME with the exception of hair and skin color.
    If one is color conscious, then I suppose the fact that the doll was a dark skinned black doll and not a light skinned doll might make someone consider the black doll “scary looking and ugly.”

    Please chaeck out Clark doll experiment in Google images and see fo yourself.

  8. Bonnie says:

    Then how do you explain that I have sold more of my (Black)Kip & K’Noodle Dolls to White girls and boys than to Black Girls & Boys? Wonder if anyone would like to report that?

    I think it simple hogwash that Black children prefer White dolls over Black dolls.

    They simply want dolls that look like them. Not dolls with white features that are simply died or painted black. No dolls with bucked eyes, emphasized eyes, or blown up lips with giant teeth!

    Really, let’s stop the pretense and get real about this issue. If we can’t speak about it with honesty things will never change.

    Kip & K’Noodle Creator

  9. Bonnie says:

    To T Crawford:

    Do you really think that the children were not influenced in any way by the dolls that they chose? Had they ever seen a black doll in a store, or received a store made one under the Christmas tree? Had they been taught that white was right and black, get back? Do you think that these children had already begin to feel that they were less and white dolls, children, people, etc. were superior?

    The story is deeper than just Black children choosing white dolls and that entire concept is misleading with no elaboration.

    To give you an example of what I’m attempting to articulate, please look at the White Supreamacy study that NBC did with white children. This is just as devastating as the test with Black Children.

    Nonetheless, your opionion and comment is appreciate and necessary if we are going to ever change things. We must first be able to discuss them openly regardless if we agree with one another’s views or not. Thanks for engaging.

  10. Bonnie says:

    Sorry for the spelling errors. Running for an appointment and forgot to check spelling!

  11. T. Crawford says:


    Points well taken.

    In fact, what you just described was the point of the doll experiment.
    Black children had learned from the segregated environment that white skin was better than black skin.
    If the children thought that the facial figures of the doll was ugly, then my belief is that they would have found BOTH dolls bad since they were identical except for color.
    The fact that the white doll was “good” to them and the black doll”bad”
    reflects the racism of the time.
    It’s a tragedy that even now as doll collectors, we face companies and doll makers that won’t make black dolls “because they do not sell.”
    I can attend a doll show or peruse a magazine and not find more than one or two black dolls. In fact, that’s the norm!!
    What I believe, and what my doll club’s mission is, is that we need to spread the importance of black dolls, encourage our community to demand more black dolls and then to support manufacturers and doll makers who produce black dolls!!

  12. We need more black doll shows on the West Coast. I always have to fly to the east coast for black doll shows. If there more in California please let me know. The one I know about is in Nov. Oakland Ca.

  13. Leslie says:

    thanks for sharing! great post!

  14. Janine Carter says:

    Absolutely amazing! I am not a doll person, so I was very surprised by my own reaction to the exhibit. The history is so rich, so complex. What a mysterious and stirring experience to have these stories spelled out so starkly, yet intimately through the through the shapes, faces, and stories of these dolls. We sense the many voices of children who held them, the toymakers who conceived them, the collectors who found them and treasured them.
    Thanks to both the Butler Bros. and the Eastville Community Historical Society for such a marvelous, informative and unique exhibit…


  15. lynda says:

    Sara Lee doll by ideal was a christmas gift in the 50′s. Always got a doll for xmas under the tree-after the holidays the dolls were packed up until the next holiday and so on and so on. Today I have all of my childhood dolls and Saralee was always a favorite. It never occurred to me that she was any different than the other dolls. She now sits in my china cabinet with my other childhood dolls-I am a doll collector. I think my mom purchased Saralee to introduce me to another race and I am thankful for that because I grew up knowing we were all equal. My dolls all received the same amount of love. I have tried several times to find another saralee doll, but she is difficult to locate.

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