Dolls Hold Significance and Break Cultural and Racial Barriers
What is it about dolls that causes them to maintain cultural, social, and practical significance across time? Dolls hold meanings for individuals, groups and communities that transcend generations and reveal insight into the era in which they were created and enjoyed. One reason dolls hold such importance involves their use as sources of entertainment, leisure and education for young people. Dolls present a unique opportunity for children to engage in role-playing that mimics everyday life. These scenarios create space for children to understand and internalize the values, consciousness and teachings of their family, community and the larger society. Dolls are often imbued with symbolism and meaning that are relevant either to the community they were created for or representative of the dominant beliefs of the society in which they were created. Other reasons for their appeal are their attractiveness and the likelihood that the owner feels a personal connection to the doll. In some instances, the doll looks like the child or reminds them of something positive and familial.
Our museum has dolls in its collection — from the famed psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark study dolls used to test children's attitudes about race and self-esteem to a topsy-turvy or doubleender — a doll which has a black doll on one end and a white doll on the other end.
Realistic Black Dolls Emerge During a Turbulent Time
The collection also contains two historically significant, but often forgotten, Saralee dolls, one of the first realistic black baby dolls produced and sold in the United States. The Saralee dolls were created by Florida businesswoman and social activist Sara Lee Creech (1916-2008) and speech teacher and friend Maxeda von Hesse (1913 -1987) in 1951. This was during the height of segregation, an era when African Americans were legally, socially, politically and financially isolated and unjustly treated based on their race.
Toys offer opportunities to reiterate children’s inclusion or “otherness” in a society that has traditionally viewed Blacks as second-class citizens. Prior to the 1950s, dolls that were anthropologically correct in their depiction of African Americans were nonexistent or not widely marketed. Negative, exaggerated and unattractive categorizations of Blacks were prevalent in media, including the toy industry. The dominant American society attempted to affirm in every sector of life that Black people were unequal to their white counterparts.
These depictions deemphasized the beauty and humanity of Blacks. Understanding the cultural, social and practical significance of dolls, it is important to consider how the lack of positive representation can have an adverse impact on children’s self-esteem, confidence, and perception. Through dolls, children can learn about their self-worth and roles within society as confirmed in the Clark study of black children’s racial perceptions. Most of the children preferred the white doll, assigning positive characteristics to it over the black dolls. The Clarks’ Supreme Court testimony contributed to the outcome for the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas school desegregation case.
The Saralee doll shifted the characterization and imagery of Black people and Black children. They also established a market that was largely missing— dolls that were intentionally and carefully made to project a positive representation of Black children.
Black Dolls Embody Beauty of Children
In 1948, Sara Lee Creech witnessed black children playing with white dolls in Belle Glade, Florida, which stirred her interest in creating opportunities for black children to have black dolls. Conversely, white children also played with black dolls, which were often stereotyped Mammy and Uncle Mose or pickaninny style dolls. At the turn of the 20th century, stores like Montgomery Ward and Company advertised “…black rag dolls: a ‘darky’ nurse doll, a ‘Mammy’ rag doll, and the ‘dusky dude.’” Toy companies, aware of the racial climate at the time, capitalized on stereotypes and marketed those dolls to white consumers. They reinforced the racist themes about Blacks and their value in society.
Susan Thompson O’Day donated a Saralee doll to the museum in 2011. The second doll was donated by Barbara Marshall Bailey in 2022. The doll O’Day donated was a Christmas present in 1952 from her father, Robert W. Thompson, to her sister, Joan Thompson Chollar. Their father managed the toy department at Sears and Roebuck in Macon, Georgia. At the time, Chollar was three years old and O’Day was one. The Thompsons were a white family living in Macon where the population was approximately 70,000 with 58% of the town being white
For two years, Creech researched the history of black dolls, discovering that typically nineteenth and twentieth-century black dolls were stereotyped dolls or white dolls that were painted brown. She felt strongly that dolls and games played a central role in conveying negative or positive ideas about race to children. Creech wanted to create dolls that embodied the “beauty and diversity of black children” and offset the adverse effects of racial exclusion and bias, both in society and in the doll industry.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Black Leaders Promote the Saralee Doll
Partnering with von Hesse, they gained national support for the doll through endorsements from prominent African Americans who actively promoted its value within the Black community. Creech’s close friend, anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston provided encouragement, strategic planning and contacts for influential Black leaders and scholars across the country. Based on the positive reception and feedback from powerful African Americans, Creech and von Hesse planned to develop a family of dolls. The family would have different skin colors and different types of hair since a single type could not represent the differences among African Americans. St. Louis sculptor Sheila Burlingame created four doll models based on approximately 500 photos and head measurements taken by Creech of black children from Belle Glade. Some of these children were featured in a 1951 Life magazine story about the doll. They included Mary Evelyn Owens, Willie James Thompson, Constance Morgan, Anna Thelma Agrett and sisters Cartheda and LaVoise Taylor. Artist and Howard University professor Lois Mailou Jones contributed sketches that depicted realistic and non-racist representations of African American children, including charcoal sketches and watercolor paintings of one of the planned sister dolls.
African Americans who supported this project included: Mary Mcleod Bethune, civil and women’s rights activist and founder of Bethune Cookman College; Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University; Ralph Bunche, diplomat, political scientist and the first African American recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; Walter White, executive secretary of the national NAACP; Bishop R.R. Wright, Jr., leader of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church and president of Morris Brown College; Benjamin Mays, theologian and president of Morehouse College; Rufus Clement, president of Atlanta University; opera singer Leontyne Price; and Jackie Robinson, major league baseball player and civil rights activist. Financier and statesman Bernard Baruch and theater producer John Golden were also supported the project. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also committed to the effort to produce the doll.
Roosevelt invited these and other leaders to a tea party to discuss the best ways to make the dolls more authentic including choosing a skin tone that was not too dark or too light.
In addition to the Saralee doll, Creech and von Hessse convinced the Ideal Toy Company, then the largest dollmaker in the United States, to make a brother doll. It was distributed on a limited basis.
From 1951 to 1953, Ideal manufactured the Saralee dolls, which were sold mostly by Sears and Roebuck, although large department stores like Gimbels and Abraham and Strauss in New York also advertised the dolls. The largest procurer of the dolls was the New York public school system, which bought several hundred each year for three years. Following the White House reception and initial marketing campaigns, the dolls made their way to black and white children as holiday gifts, birthday presents and everything in between. But shortly afterwards sales began to wane.
Black Dolls Bring Joy, Challenge Racial Barriers
While the Saralee doll was originally created to provide Black children with beautiful toys that positively reflected them with dignity, pride and respect, children of other backgrounds also enjoyed the toy. “I think they are a real lesson in equality for little children. We will find that many a child will cherish a charming colored doll as easily as it will a charming white doll,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Creech.
Multiple factors contributed to the doll’s commercial failure, most pointedly the lack of commitment by Ideal executives to the concept that toys could be profitable “agents of social change.” Their unwillingness to produce the family of dolls eliminated the option of more diverse representations of African Americans. When the doll debuted in 1951, it was made of an experimental and unstable vinyl material, “Vinylite Magic Skin.” Although the plasticizers and synthetic resins made the doll’s skin soft, over time the components separated and caused the skin to harden and change colors. Those chemical reactions compounded matters as the doll’s clothes absorbed the leaching dye. Creech’s dream of producing an “anthologically correct” African American doll was a worthy albeit impossible aspiration. The doll’s medium brown color also did not have universal appeal to a significant number of black consumers.
Saralee dolls were only manufactured for a brief period. But they challenged political, cultural and racial barriers while bringing joy to many children during the holiday season and on other special occasions.
Alexis Dixon is a Curatorial Assistant at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Her work at the museum includes research centric to the Black Fashion Museum collection and the work of historical Black fashion designers and couturiers.
Elaine Nichols is Senior Curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Her work at the museum includes responsibility for curating costumes, textiles and decorative arts at the museum, which includes the Black Fashion Museum collection.