I was born a collector! Since I was a child, I have loved collecting this and that, and some of what I loved as a child spilled over into adulthood. I also like to keep busy in my downtime, and love doing things that require detail, even activities that others might find tedious. I also always enjoy bringing old things back to “life” – making aged and worn items beautiful again, without completely re-doing the item, keeping things as original as possible. That’s how I stumbled on a hobby that has become a passion.
I have always loved dolls. When I was a child, if I wasn’t playing with my beloved dollhouse, I was playing with my dolls. Rag dolls, baby dolls, Barbies…I loved them all, and some of my happiest childhood memories are filled with dolls. I especially loved my baby dolls – mostly made by Madame Alexander.
Childhood Christmas mornings were magical when I’d open a doll box. The smell of a new doll – with their pristine clothing, shiny patent shoes, and silky hair – special memories were made with each new doll.
As the baby of the family and having only a brother who was much older, when it was too hot to play outside with friends in the Texas heat, my dolls were playmates.
As an adult, I got my first taste of the joy of fixing up an antique doll when I bought two 1940’s Ideal Toni dolls, just like the one my mother had as a child. When I gave my mother the Toni I restored for her one Christmas, (read the blog post “A Very Special Christmas Gift”, here.), I thought I would burst before she opened the box! I had so much fun bringing those dolls back to “life”. The Ideal toy company was one of the first to market dolls using hard plastic, such as on the Toni doll.
One day, I was out “junk-tiquing” when I saw a Patti Playpal doll. Before my time, she came out in 1959. Patti Playpal was made from the same hard plastic that vintage blow molds were made from, and was the same size as a real three-year-old child. Ideal marketed the lifesize doll to be a child’s playmate, or “companion”. She was a strung, “walker” doll, meaning a child could hold her hands and have the doll “walk” beside her. When I was a little girl in the 1970’s, there was a local children’s clothing store that used old Patti Playpal dolls as their mannequins. I remember wishing I could play with them whenever my mom took me clothing shopping!
I left the doll I saw that day at the shop, but couldn’t forget her. Of course, when I went back later with my husband, she was gone. We did find a 1954 “grocery store” doll, an Allied Eastern “Lady” doll.Much nicer and well-made than more modern “grocery store” dolls, I adore her! Down the rabbit hole I went!
Later, on a cold, snowy day, a big box came to the house. My husband, who was out of town at the time for a few weeks on a business trip, had searched the internet to find me an (affordably priced), vintage 1959 Patti Playpal, as a gift for Valentine’s Day. When I opened the huge box and got my first glimpse of the beautiful, blonde doll, with her long lashes, silky Saran hair, and sweet face, I was smitten. She only needed a little work (doll collectors call the process a “spa day”). I could not have been more excited than if I was a little kid.
Patti Playpal was designed by the famous Amerian sculptor Neil Carl Estern, who is best known for his presidential sculptures of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt at the FDR memorial, and of JFK in Prospect Park. He only recently passed away in 2019 at the age of 93, living at the time only an hour away from my town.
In 1959, Estern worked for the Ideal Toy Company, known for their wonderful toys and dolls. He sculpted Patti, and his wife Anne helped with designing the doll’s details and wardrobe.
My blonde Patti was my first big doll transformation. I’ve dressed her up for different holidays, but my favorite outfit is a classic red and white checked dress. Named Patti Mae, she also wears my little heart locket from when I was a small child, and a ladybug ring I got from Santa when I was three, that my daughter also wore as a toddler. The red Snoopy Timex watch that still ticks was the watch I learned to tell time on in first grade. When we first had the doll standing in the upstairs hall, it often made my husband and I pause; it was like going back in time because she looks so much like my daughter did as a toddler!
Patti came in different forms – there were curly haired dolls, straight haired dolls, walkers and non-walkers, and a BabyFace version. The rarest of all is the “carrot top Patti”, made with green eyes and red hair, as well as a boy Playpal, Peter. I have only seen photos of those. They are all adorable! Prices run the gamut depending on where you find them, but if you are a good scout you can still find Patti Playpal dolls reasonably.
I like to find dolls that need extreme makeovers. I find joy in bringing them back to minty and beautiful. Though Patti Playpal dolls can wear (and were advertised to) real children’s clothing, dressing a Playpal doll can be tricky. Lifting their arms too high risks cracking their torsos. Dresses that button all the way down, made especially for dolls, are best, or children’s clothes that can be slit down the back to fit Patti.
My husband brought me home a second Patti, this time a brunette. The poor thing had a dress that was from the 60’s but too big for her, residue from a giant sticker, and a head to toe greasy residue from sitting next to an oil burner in a basement for five decades.
Her hair was matted and showed evidence of a “mommy cut”. It took a lot of work to get her clean and neat, and I altered her dress to fit.
The Shirley Temple Playpal was produced only in 1960, when Shirley Temple’s movies were being enjoyed by a new generation on television. We drove to New York for my Shirley, who was in pitiful shape.
She had been stored for decades, unloved and never played with, upside down in a trash can, forgotten in a garage. Her chiffon dress was in shreds and it was only after many soakings that I realized it’s a beautiful blue, not the dingy grey I first thought it was! I carefully and tediously repaired any tears, and added a new petticoat. She has her original pin and watch, and has ‘twist wrists’ which make her easier to pose. Her hair was harder to fix – it took a while, and the help of my hairdresser daughter to get the “sausage curls” back to original. The necklace she wears is from the 1940s. It was given to me by a neighbor when I was little, an enameled basket of flowers that was hers when she was a child. Shirley Temple herself had a Shirley Temple Playpal, exactly like my doll, as part of her own collection as an adult. The 1960 Playpal looks so lifelike!
With Patti’s success, other companies tried to cash in with copies. Sayco made a few, Madame Alexander made Janie, Horseman made Princess Peggy, and many other, unmarked dolls were made during the era. These large dolls are now referred to as Playpal Clones or Companion dolls.
Ideal also made a Playpal “family”, other dolls in the successful line of companion dolls. Along with Patti and Peter, Ideal sold baby twins Bonnie and Johnnie, which are pretty rare and harder to find. In the 1980’s, Ideal issued a new Patti, this time without sleepy eyes, and Ashton Drake made a reissue of Patti, Shirley, and Peter Playpal dolls in the early 2000’s. (Unfortunately, many of the reissued dolls need to be rerooted or have a doll wig, since unlike the original dolls, the AD reissues often lose all of their hair. The sponge inside the doll’s head deteriorates over time).
In 1951, Ideal marketed a “Saucy Walker” doll, made of hard plastic and 22 inches tall. She had what is referred to as “flirty” eyes, which means the eyes not only open and close, but move side to side, as well. I enjoyed restoring mine, who needed her hair touched up, eyes adjusted, and her clothes and shoes cleaned and pressed. In her pink and aqua, she looks like she is ready to spin some Elvis records on the record player!
Ideal used the name “Saucy Walker” again in the early sixties, marketing a large toddler sized doll in the Playpal family as “Patti Playpal’s baby cousin”. Mine is the 28” size; there was also a 32” sized doll. Saucy has such a sweet expression!
I just love Ideal’s “Bye Bye Baby”, issued in 1960. Neil Estern also sculpted this sweet doll, which was only made for one year. Sized like a real six-month-old baby, my friend Linda gave me a vintage pink baby dress for her. Though she was marketed as a “girl”, Bye Bye Baby also looks cute when dressed as a boy, which many collectors do with theirs.
My husband and daughter took me to a doll show in Massachusetts. There, I was thrilled to find a “Suzy“ Playpal. She needed a good “spa” day, but was in good condition with no cracks.
My most favorite dolls tend to be dolls manufactured by Ideal. At the doll show, I also picked up a “Tiffani Taylor” from the 70’s. When I was given one as a hand-me-down doll from a cousin when I was little, my mother did not approve because she thought she was a bit “grown up” (a sentiment I also felt as an adult when my daughter was given a “Bratz” doll one year for her birthday).
As a child, I loved playing with Tiffani Taylor because she was a “fashion doll” like Barbie, but much larger at 19 inches. Her scalp turns so she can be blonde or brunette.
From trial, instinct, research, and advice from fellow doll collectors, I have learned to do “doll doctor fixes” like bringing doll hair back to like-new state (no human shampoo!), clean marks, uncloud eyes, fix cracks, restring bodies, fix crazing, and adjust eyes that are sunken in or crooked. I most often use clothing and items I have on hand, such as things I saved, like special shoes and dresses from when my daughter was a baby.
I realized I was restoring other people’s dolls, so I decided to restore the few dolls I had from my own childhood.
My first-ever doll was a Madame Alexander rag doll, “Muffin” that I got as an infant. I carried her around everywhere, by her hair. At some point, my mom had to put her in the washing machine, and she emerged from the dryer without a face. As I was screaming at the top of my little kid lungs, I remember my father scrambling to go to the local five and dime for felt to try to recreate her face. After fifty years, she was dry rotting to the point that she was literally disintegrating.
Working with a photo on Pinterest of an original doll and from my childhood photos, after I washed her original dress and undies, stabilized her rotting areas with netting, and added stuffing. I recreated her original face from felt and satin. I also matched her hair with vintage 1960’s wool yarn I had in my yarn stash.
Her little squeaker still works, and I am so happy I could rescue my precious childhood pal.
I had my original doll dress of a favorite childhood doll, but sadly, not the doll. I was thrilled to find out that she was an Effanbee “Suzy Sunshine”. I was able to track one down, but she needed major TLC.
I’m thrilled how minty she looks now. My mom also saved my original Fisher Price “My Friend Mandy”, so I brought her back to minty, too.
Some dolls were gifts, others I found in various places online, at thrift shops, or at estate sales.
My 22” Betsy Wetsy, an estate sale find, is from the 1950’s. Many a child had a Betsy Wetsy!
The little crib is a fifties metal doll crib found at a local thrift shop. It was missing a wood bead, and had no cushion. I bought foam and fabric at Joanns to make a mattress, and repaired the crib. The whole thing cost me under $14.00. It displays my dolls and vintage teddy bears perfectly. Mittens the cat ADORES the dolls, often loving on them.
Of all the dolls I’ve“rescued”, I think I’m most proud of the work I did on two antique composition dolls. Composition dolls were usually made of wood sawdust and glue, before plastic and vinyl was available. If not stored correctly, the wood underneath would expand, cracking or “crazing” the surface.
The large walker doll was made in Italy in the 1930’s, from an artist. She was bound for the trash, and was so dirty, moldy, and stinky, I had to take her in the yard with a mask on to clean her out before bringing her in to the house.
Her dress was so rotted it had fused to her wooden core in places, and her shoes had literally rotted off over time. Her hair was a hot mess! Her legs and arms were needing major repair, as well.
I surprised myself with how good she turned out. I did a lot of research before working on her. I want to keep dolls as close to original as possible. The dress she now wears, handmade from the same era, is one that I had originally picked up for Patti Playpal, until I realized I could not get her arms in it. I had the vintage hat and little bag on hand from thrift shop junk-tiqing, and the little child shoes were too small for a playpal doll, but fit this one perfectly. Heavy, she stands almost three feet tall. I named her “Clara” after Clara Bow.
The “Mama” baby came to me with no clothes, heavy crazing and cracking, and eyes needing repair. At first, I wasn’t sure what I would do with her. I’ve ended up crazy about her! I put her in a vintage baby’s christensing gown and cap that had come in a lot with other dolls, that did not fit the doll originally wearing it (repaired and whitened first). I alwo worked on her complexion, adjusted and unclouded her eyes, and knitted her some booties. I love how she turned out.
My sewing room is also now my doll room. I love spending time in there. Dolls aren’t for everyone; I get that. Reactions to my dolls crack me up. Some “get” it, and love them, others imagine doll restoration as being on the same level as taxidermy, and are not a fan. Still, there are many adult doll collectors and enthusiasts all over the world. I’m also looking forward to joining a local doll collectors’ club. I adore my dolls. For me, I find immense joy in bringing something, once a beloved part of childhood – played with and often forgotten, back to beautiful.
*I hope you enjoyed the post. Let me know your thoughts, or just say hello in comments! (Remember to do the “captcha” so your comment will go through!
Until Next Time…Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole