As I dug through the vintage photo archives of various families on Ebay and Pinterest circa the early to mid 20th century, I was increasingly confounded by the persistence of dolls. Almost every photograph of little girls on Christmas also features her most prized holiday gift: a doll. Of course one would hope that girls had a few more options; after all, boys are not offered toys that underscore the importance of physical beauty or childcare in the way that dolls might. But there is something magical in these nostalgic images; I don't know if it's the black and white tones of the images themselves or the fact the girls are each so entranced by their dolls, but the photographs evoke a wistful sense of wonder and play.
My guess is that dolls were not quite as prevalent as these images might suggest, as there were other gift options. But the dolls are historically significant, subtly reminiscent of everything from remaining ideals from the "cult of domesticity" to the rise of the 1950s housewife. The dolls aim to teach girls about both standards of beauty and the basics of nurturing and loving childcare.
The doll is symptomatic of those often oppressive feminine ideals: a girl may learn to care for a child through her doll, who might also serve as a model of perfect grooming and beauty. The reverence the girls hold for the dolls, peering through the store windows, is touching and poignant given the cultural implications. And the dolls certainly weren't all bad: as mid-century horror stories and episodes of The Twilight Zone teach us, dolls weren't always polite and content with domesticity. In an instant, they could subvert feminine ideals, becoming a girl's most powerful confidante and ally by sticking up for those encouraged to take subservient roles to men. So take a look at these remnants of decades past, for they might contain hints of feminist ideas percolating within the minds of girls everywhere.
Photos via Pinterest/Sandra Denise, Ebay, Midnight Poem, Pinterest/Twila Walker, Retro Vintage Photography, Sue Hirtle
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