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Posts Tagged ‘dolls’

Addy Walker, American Girl

May 28, 2015 | by

The role of black dolls in American culture.


From the cover of Meet Addy.

In 1864, a nine-year-old slave girl was punished for daydreaming. Distracted by rumors that her brother and father would be sold, she failed to remove worms from the tobacco leaves she was picking. The overseer didn’t whip her. Instead, he pried her mouth open, stuffed a worm inside, and forced her to eat it.

This girl is not real. Her name is Addy Walker; she is an American Girl doll, one of eight historical dolls produced by the Pleasant Company who arrive with dresses, accessories, and a series of books about their lives. Of all the harrowing scenes I’ve encountered in slave narratives, I remember this scene from Meet Addy, her origin story, most vividly. How the worm—green, fat, and juicy—burst inside Addy’s mouth. At eight years old, I understood that slavery was cruel—I knew about hard labor and whippings—but the idea of a little girl being forced to eat a worm stunned me. I did not yet understand that violence is an art. There’s creativity to cruelty. What did I know of its boundaries and edges? Read More »

Another Day, Another Doll Hero

May 7, 2015 | by


H. Schönhauser, Mädchen mit Puppe (Girl with Doll), 1904.

Yesterday, after posting about the Edison Talking Doll, I was wracked with guilt. I could not believe that I, a lifelong defender of dolls, had turned on them so callously, joining the chorus of ignorant fear-mongering that contributes to the current hostile doll work environment! I was ashamed. 

I set about to offer a counterpoint. Surely, I thought, there must be some dolls out there whose good works I can acknowledge. I Googled “Doll saves life.” Read More »

If I Should Die Before I Wake

May 6, 2015 | by


The Edison Talking Doll, prepared to shatter whatever fragments of inner peace you‘d once believed to be infrangible.

Even doll partisans—those of us who defend doll life from slander and prejudice and unfair film portrayals—have to admit that they’re sometimes terrifying. Indeed, I think it would be fair to say that the Edison Talking Doll is one of the scariest things ever made by man or demon. You have been warned.

The Edison Talking Doll is just what it sounds like: a doll, with a small phonograph in its body, mass-produced by Thomas Edison’s lab in the 1890s. Although it was a progenitor of Chatty Cathy and a hundred other loquacious toys, the Edison Doll didn’t catch on, for the simple reason that it opened a howling portal to hell. (Well, they claimed the relatively high price was a factor.) While we may assume that the poor sound quality is a result of wear and tear on the original wax cylinders, apparently that’s not the case; as the Thomas Edison National Historical Park’s site explains, “Even with a brand-new, unplayed record, the sound emitted by the talking doll was always distorted and unnatural.” 

That’s putting it kindly. The doll … shrieks. It’s like an unearthly Carol Kane screaming in a wind tunnel, trapped in the body of a lifeless totem. Listen at your own risk. 

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.

My Fair Lady

February 17, 2015 | by

alma doll

The doll of dolls: Alma Mahler, or someone near enough?

When people know that one has a certain interest—say, dolls—they will very kindly send one stories that they think correspond to the subject. As a result, I’ve had brought to my attention everything from articles about Upper West Side doll-hoarders to videos about sex-doll fetishists. In their way, these are all engaging, and it would seem churlish to explain that you, in fact, don’t particularly care about puppets or mannequins, or that, while you liked Lars and the Real Girl or Daphne du Maurier’s The Doll perfectly well, it wasn’t out of any sort of niche fascination. 

(In fact, privately I feel that this points to a systemic marginalization of dolls in our society, and that films like Annabelle only contribute to a culture of casual discrimination. Dolls are unfairly maligned as sinister, or as inherently sexual, and while there are certainly a few bad apples—and the fetishistic qualities of any human totem are part of their fascination—I think they get a bad rap. Indeed, following the death of Doll Hospital proprietor Erving Chase, a New York area doll can’t even get adequate medical care. But I digress.) 

The case of the famed Alma Mahler doll, however, is a special one. While it was sort of a sex doll and sort of a mannequin—and as such, not really my area of study—it also had an unimpeachable toy pedigree: in 1918, after the great muse ended her relationship with the artist Oskar Kokoschka, he commissioned a life-size replica of his lost love from the doll-maker Hermine Moos. Read More »

Characters Get Together

December 31, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

wilshire boulevard

Wilshire Boulevard ca. 1959. Photo: Roger Wollstadt, via Flickr

There were extenuating circumstances. I was in LA for work, and I had known, intellectually, that it would be warm in California—hot, even. But when you’re deep in a New York winter, who really thinks to pack a sundress?

The lightest thing I had was a pair of jeans. So on a particularly Saharan afternoon, I ducked into a thrift store and grabbed a cotton dress off the rack without trying it on. When I got back to my room and changed, I noticed that the dress was brief. It wasn’t until I had donned my sandals that I realized the dress was in fact too small for me. Oh well, I thought. Better to look silly than to burn, as Saint Paul would most certainly not have said.

The bus let me off some distance from my destination. I didn’t mind; I like to walk. But I was the only pedestrian on that stretch of Santa Monica. Then, as the wind whipped my flimsy skirt up around my thighs, motorists started honking. One car slowed so the driver could catcall me.

If you think this is flattering—and no woman reading this does—think again. Read More >>


December 19, 2014 | by


From the cover of Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl.

The past, as we know, is another country, and from the age of four or so, I wished passionately for dual citizenship. What old-fashioned meant, I couldn’t even have told you. But for most of my early life I worshipped the idea devoutly. To me it meant inheritance, placement, being part of something larger. 

I think I envisioned this vague past as a world where I belonged. Other children were kind and wholesome; clothes were strange and modest; I was not ridiculous. Paradoxically, my communion with the past made me wholly ridiculous. Sporting bloomers to the third grade has rarely been a road to modern popularity. 

As might be clear, my family had no particular veneration for ritual, but I still cleaved to the idea of holidays as a tradition-steeped idyll. I baked and decorated and played carols, and my homemade gifts were very strange. The primary reason for this is that I got all my ideas from a series of vintage books with names like Let’s Make a Gift! and Fun and Thought for Little Folk, and the youngest of them dated to the late 1930s. As a result, my parents were treated to pen wipers and blotters, a pipe cleaner “embroidered” with the word Father (my dad did not smoke a pipe), and, on one particularly lackluster occasion, a “brush for invalids” that involved wrapping a stick in a piece of flannel so the bedridden individual did not need to wash her hair. Read More »