Roben Campbell and Pat Hatch discuss their upcoming exhibit of black dolls at the Harvard Historical Society. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)
Sitting on time-worn chairs in Pat Hatch’s antiques-filled living room on Fairbank Street, two groups of black cloth dolls are arranged in collected splendor, representing their many brothers and sisters displayed throughout the rest of the house. Hatch, who owns Harvard Antiques, has collected black dolls since the 1970s, when she saw the first one in a Bolton antique store. “I’d never seen anything like it,” she said in an interview Tuesday. After the first one, the collecting bug bit: she now has a collection of over 150 displayed in cabinets, shelves, and chairs. The dolls, which have a long and significant social history, will be displayed at the Harvard Historical Society in an exhibit tentatively titled “No Longer Hidden: An Exhibit of Black Cloth Dolls 1870 to 1930,” starting Friday, March 30.
The majority of the dolls in Hatch’s collection were made before the 1920s, when mass production of dolls took over from the one-of-a-kind, folk art nature of those made before that time. Their origin can be traced back roughly 100 years earlier, when the majority of black dolls were made by both black and white women for their children to play with. Almost all of the dolls in Hatch’s collection show evidence of years of love and play: most have simple faces, with features drawn on in pencil or embroidered in simple stitches. A few have button eyes, and almost all of them have the neutral, unsmiling faces typical of dolls made before the first World War. Some of the dolls in Hatch’s collection have fancy tailored shirts and dresses, and one unusual male doll has a brown velvet jacket with a diminutive lace collar and shell buttons.
Roben Campbell has worked with Hatch curating the collection for the exhibit at the Historical Society. Both women share an interest in Shaker history and antiques, and bonded over their enthusiasm for the black doll collection as well. After doing extensive research, Campbell said the sheer size and variety of Hatch’s collection make it worthy of display, adding that she believes it is one of the most significant collections in the country.
While the majority of the dolls in Hatch’s collection are about 18 inches tall, she also has some smaller “church dolls,” intended to keep a child busy through services. Another doll, only a few inches tall, is dressed in pink gingham with a kerchief on her head: in her arms is a tiny white infant. One of Hatch’s favorites, though, is a life-size baby doll with a pintucked calico dress and kid leather shoes. With well-worn face and floppy arms, a child clearly loved the doll for many years before it made her way to Fairbank Street. An intuitive quality attracts Hatch to the dolls as much as any aesthetic sense, she said. “They’re an art form that represents women and the work that they did, and their love for their children.”
According to Campbell, the first known pattern for black dolls was published in The American Girls Book in 1831. Dolls were becoming enormously popular with the rise of the American middle class and an increased emphasis on childhood play, she said, and sold by the thousands. During the 1840s and ’50s, when women’s groups assembled to support the abolition movement, the sale of dolls at sewing guilds and bazaars funded a significant part of the movement’s activities, including publication of “The Liberator.”
Black dolls also figure in other interesting stories of the abolition movement. New dolls were given to comfort fugitive slave children on the Underground Railroad, and it is known that Harriet Jacobs, a one-time fugitive slave and the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, also made black dolls. Three of them are still in existence, Campbell said, and are owned by descendants of the Willis family that bought Jacobs’ freedom in 1859.
Black dolls went into gradual decline in the years after World War I, Campbell said, as mass production techniques made them less appealing to both children and collectors. It is typical of many folk art pieces, she said, that after a long period of interest, they drop out of the public consciousness for a generation or more. As new generations rediscover the treasurers in the attic, however, that interest is gradually revived. Black dolls began to re-emerge as a popular collector’s item in the 1960s and ’70s, Campbell said, and are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Their re-emergence after a long absence from the public eye inspired the name of the exhibit, she added.
Campbell is busy pulling the final details of the show together, ferrying display cases from the Fitchburg Art Museum and creating interpretive material about the collection. She looks forward to sharing the dolls with a wider audience when the show opens, she said. “I want to introduce them to the public.”