Porcelain half dolls are, quite literally, half a doll. These figurines were sculpted from the waist up, leaving the lower regions free to be replaced with pincushions, brushes and other household items. More utilitarian than a child’s toy, half dolls served a variety of household purposes in the early 20th century.
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Porcelain half dolls reached the height of their popularity between 1900 and 1930. The majority of these dolls were made in Germany, with some being produced in Italy, England, France, America and Japan. The earliest half dolls were similar in appearance to 18th-century Meissen dolls with finely sculpted limbs and features. These early half dolls were expensive and considered an extravagant possession. In the 1920s, the dolls became more modern in appearance, displaying bobs and flapper attire. These later models did not possess the same quality of design, being mass produced and poorly glazed.
Half dolls were employed in a wide variety of uses in early 20th-century households. Most commonly, the dolls functioned as pincushions, whisk brooms, bottle stoppers, lamp shades and powder puffs, with the aforementioned objects attached in lieu of legs or a skirt. Other half dolls sported wide, flowing skirts that could cover teapots, toiletries or other objects. Because half dolls were often sculpted without clothing, they also served as useful models for young ladies learning to sew.
While many half dolls represented beautiful women, others depicted common pets such as dogs, birds, rabbits or cats. Still others were sculpted in masculine forms such as soldiers. Some of the more detailed feminine half dolls flaunted flowing wigs made of mohair. Most half dolls were sculpted with the arms in one of three poses: closed, or up against the body; open, with a space between the arms and the body; and away, with one or both arms fully away from the body, often touching the hair.
Many early half dolls came from Germany, with Dressel & Kister being a particularly prolific producer. The artists in this factory used portraits of beautiful ladies and legendary actresses as their models. The Goebel and Heubach factories, also in Germany, were other notable half doll producers. The Herend factory in Hungary produced many half dolls as well, reproducing older models and creating replacement pieces when other manufacturers ceased operations. The Capo-di-Monte porcelain factory in Italy produced some early half dolls. Most dolls made in Japan, England and the United States simply bear the mark of origin, not the manufacturer.
Because they are more fragile and less likely to have survived intact, antique half dolls with at least one arm held fully away from the body are more valuable. Earlier half dolls, more detailed in design and hand painted, are also favoured above later, mass-produced dolls. One particularly collectable half doll represents “La Belle Chocolatiere,” an early 20th-century advertising symbol for Baker’s Chocolate. The doll, sculpted in the image of a Viennese serving girl, carries a tiny tray complete with cup and saucer.
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