Black composition dolls were made from 1909 until the 1950s, reaching a peak in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. The term "composition" refers to the mix of materials used in the manufacturing process. Traditionally, each doll company used a unique blend of ingredients for their composition mix, based on wood pulp, sawdust and glue.
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Composition dolls replaced delicate bisque, or porcelain dolls, and the doll manufacturers of the 1920s claimed composition dolls were much stronger because of new robust materials in the composition mix. The sawdust, wood pulp and glue were ground together, poured into moulds and left to set. The doll's skin and facial features were painted to give an authentic look, and the surface sealed with thick lacquer.
Black Baby Dolls
Black composition dolls were originally made from the same mould as white dolls and their skin painted a different colour to cut costs. Demand for black dolls increased between the 1920s and 1930s with the introduction of baby dolls. Armand Marseille's My Dream Baby and Grace Putnam's Bye-Lo Baby were popular white baby dolls, and black versions were made from the same composition moulds, retaining their Caucasian features, with the addition of a brown or black skin tone.
Manufacturers realised the need for realistic black dolls during the 1920s and designed new moulds to create Topsy dolls, named after the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." They are identified by a tuft of hair on each side of the head and one on the top. Leading doll manufacturers brought out their own versions of the black Topsy doll and the name became synonymous with black composition dolls produced throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
The lacquer on black composition dolls has a tendency to deteriorate when exposed to damp conditions, producing cracks in the skin tone, known as crazing. When moisture in the pulp-based composition layer expands and contracts, the upper lacquer layer cracks under the strain, resulting in a crackled effect on the doll's face. Collectors accept that light crazing is inevitable, and so the condition rarely devalues a doll unless the pulp layer is also damaged.
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