In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the production and sale of dolls for young girls increased significantly in Europe and the United States, spurred both by demand and new techniques of manufacture. During this period, all-wooden dolls that had been available since the eighteenth century remained popular along with the more recently introduced dolls featuring papier-mâché heads, leather bodies, and wooden limbs. While some dolls were sold with their own clothing, it was much more common for girls (under the supervision of their mothers or other adult women) to make outer garments, underclothes, and accessories for this all-important toy. Contemporary children’s stories about dolls and their owners, as well as prints illustrating girls playing with their dolls, made a direct connection between the careful attention a young girl gave to creating her doll’s ensembles and her own appearance and developing dress sensibility. In a culture in which leisure-class women were expected to devote themselves to the domestic responsibilities of wife and mother, dolls and their clothing served to socialize young girls and prepare them from an early age for the role of fashion in their lives
Although some homemade dolls’ clothes may have lagged behind changes in high fashion, they often reflected contemporary styles closely as seen in this charming pelisse or coat-dress. The shape, construction, and fabric of the pelisse suggest a date of about 1830 to 1840. This type of garment, with a wide turned-down collar, leg o’mutton sleeves, full, pleated skirts, belted waist, and matching pelerine, or capelet, was fashionable for both women and girls at the time as seen in numerous fashion plates and extant garments. A glazed cotton lining—here bright aquamarine blue—throughout the body of the pelisse further underscores the stylish dress-in-miniature aspect of dolls’ clothing. Undoubtedly made from surplus pieces of fabric, the pelisse features a small-scale, brightly colored pattern of roller-printed wool, similar to designs popular from the late 1820s through the 1830s that combine stylized natural motifs and stripes. In this example, vivid red coral branches are superimposed over contrasting stripes of deep brown and brilliant teal blue, set off by fine white lines. Although the printed textile industry in the United States was expanding during these decades, demand for the much wider range of British goods was still strong, and it is likely that this wool was imported to New England.
Made for a large doll that was surely a prized possession, this pelisse may well have resembled a garment worn by her young "Mamma" which, in turn, might have been a smaller version of her own mother’s—an apt illustration of the relationship between girls’ toys as both playthings and instructional objects and nineteenth-century concepts of femininity.
Published in the Cora Ginsburg 2013 catalogue.