Family Archivist: Caring for Old Heirloom Dolls

By Denise May Levenick Premium
Childhood playthings can be bridge to the past, especially when you share your favorite old toy with a 21st-century kid. You can display your favorite baby doll—and maybe even let your grandkids hold her—if you follow these preservation tips.

Ask the Archivist

Q.How should I care for the dolls I collected as a young girl? I have several international dolls in ethnic dress, and two large, well-loved dolls. I’d like to share them with my granddaughters one day.
A. Dolls of all sizes are among girls’ most often saved treasured from childhood. Small souvenir dolls were popular collectibles in the mid-19th century. Your large play dolls could be made from several different materials. It can be difficult to determine what materials were used, but you should know this information before attempting to clean the doll. Cloth, wood, ceramic, bisque, porcelain and plastics are only some of the materials often found in the heads and bodies of old dolls. Is your doll celluloid, one of the first synthetic plastics, which can be unstable and flammable? Or is it composition, a material composed of sawdust, glue, resin and other substances?
Learn more about your dolls and how to care for them by consulting a doll handbook or a local doll-collecting club. Some basic preservation rules hold true no matter what your treasures are made of. Always wear white cotton or nitrile gloves when handling the doll, as oils transferred from your hands will attract dirt and pests. Don’t wet-wash the doll or clothing. Instead, lightly dust the dolls with a soft bristle brush or a vacuum with a brush attachment. If you choose the latter, use a mesh screen over the nozzle to protect the doll and its clothing from the suction.
If you want to display a doll, rotate exposure as a museum would, with a few weeks on display in an airtight glass case away from light and heat. Then move the doll to archival storage for three to six months. Keep storage boxes inside a closet or cabinet in the living area of your home, with consistent temperature and humidity.
Finally, don’t attempt a repair that can’t be undone. Find a professional conservator by talking to other collectors and searching the online directory of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works  (choose Objects as a conservation specialty).

Storing Your Antique Dolls

Store your antique dolls in an archival storage window box, available from suppliers such as Gaylord or Hollinger Metal Edge. To determine the right size box, measure your doll from head to toe and add a few extra inches for padding. Use acid-free tissue paper to cushion the doll. If the doll has a dress with a full skirt, place lightly crumpled tissue paper inside it to support the fragile cloth. Dolls with “sleep eyes” that open and close should be stored  face down to prevent fatigue on the threaded weights that make the eyes work.

Doll Display Disaster

This beautiful handmade doll was crafted to look like my grandmother in her early 20th-century cotton eyelet dress and jacket. But unfortunately, years of display in a glass-front case allowed light and stale warm air to speed up deterioration. The cotton dress is now brown and brittle; the painted porcelain bodice, yellow. Protect your heirloom dolls by displaying them for limited periods and away from light and heat. Preserve them in an archival box for long-term storage.

All Dolled Up

Did you know that doll collecting is one of the most popular hobbies worldwide, after collecting stamps and coins? The United Federation of Doll Clubs (UFDC) has more than 11,000 members worldwide and features a magazine, a doll museum in Kansas City, Mo., an annual convention, and educational resources. Contact a UFDC group in your area for information on your antique doll. 
Tip: Write the history of your vintage doll—who gave it to you and when, your memories of playing with it, repairs made, etc.—and place a copy on acid-free paper in the doll storage box. Find more heirloom preservation help in my book How to Archive Family Keepsakes (Family Tree Books).

Heirloom ID: Ponytail No. 1 Barbie

Many grown women today fondly remember childhood days spent dressing their Barbie dolls and styling (and restyling) their hair. Until 1959, when Ruth Handler (wife of the founder of Mattel) created Barbie, based on a German doll named Bild Lilli, most dolls looked like babies or little girls.
Marketed as a “Teen-age Fashion Model,” Barbie came with a blonde or brunette ponytail and coy, side-glancing eyes. She wore a chic black-and-white swimsuit. Over the years, she’s appeared in everything from a bubble-cut hairstyle (sold from 1961 to 1967) to a lab coat (Doctor Barbie debuted in 1994). Collectors call the first doll, which originally sold for $3, “Ponytail No. 1.” According to Antique Trader magazine, her value now ranges from $4,000 to $9,000, depending on condition. “Mint in box” versions of Brunette Ponytail No. 1—which Mattel produced in fewer numbers—fetch top dollar.
From the December 2015 Family Tree Magazine