Porcelain (and other) antique dolls for Christmas


It has become a tradition now that each December the Prague City Museum holds a Christmas-themed exhibit, most often displaying historic nativity scenes once manufactured in the Czech lands. But, these days such exhibits are a "dime a dozen", so this year the museum opted for something a little different. Organisers approached three collectors to help put together a show on antique dolls. The result is "Dolls of Our Grandmothers", displaying more than 600 dolls from 19th and early 20th centuries. If you're a fan or a collector, this is a show not to be missed.

Zuzana Strnadova is the head of the Prague City Museum:

"We traditionally hold special shows for Christmas to get people to come with their families, both grandparents and kids. In the past we tended to focus on Betlemy - that is, Bethlehem nativity scenes, or on puppets and marionettes, but this year we thought why not try something new: to exhibit historic dolls. I'm sure to this day most little girls want to get a doll for Christmas and that it's still one of the most requested gifts.

"Then, we approached three collectors because our own collection is not nearly sufficient: Alena Dolezalova, Hana Hodkova and Iva Jihlavcova, who helped put the show together."

The exhibition features dolls of all kinds - from the late 1800s up until the 1950s. They stand, sit, and pose in all manner of styles, and were made from different materials: expensive porcelain pieces served decorative purposes for well-to-do families at the turn of the century, while cloth, wood, paper, and papier mache dolls were owned and played with by children. Most of the items on display were originally made in Germany, though some are from the former Czechoslovakia, and a few are even from as far off as Japan.

Collector Alena Dolezalova, who has been collecting dolls as well as teddy bears for forty years, explained that her hobby - which includes all restoration work - is time-consuming indeed:

"Usually we get dolls in pretty poor shape and it's true they need to be fixed. Often you have to search for spare pieces: eyes, hands, little bodies, feet. It can take very long before a doll is repaired. In addition, we often sew new clothes for the dolls, or new hair, and only then they look nice. Here in the show we have two examples of how dolls looked before and after, so that visitors can get an understanding of how much work it really takes."

The oldest doll in the show dates back to 1805: a so-called "biscuit" doll - a doll with an unglazed head and body made from leather or cloth. Alena Dolezalova explains that visitors should take note of the different doll makers, like the French Juveau and Armand Marseille, and the German Kestner, Handwerkck, Kammer und Reinhardt as well as Simon & Halbig, all well-known historic labels.

As for Mrs Dolezalova's favourites? Well, though she owns more than 200 regular-sized dolls her speciality are miniature ones measuring only a centimetre in height, small enough to, fit in a walnut shell, as you can see at the show. Remarkably, even such dolls boast moving hands and legs. But, historically, they weren't for playing at all but for keeping in one's pocket, apparently for good luck.

Other interesting items then one can see at "Dolls of Our Grandmothers" are dolls that were used as tea-pot covers, or giant samples several pounds heavy that one could only wheel around in baby carriages. Speaking of accessories those carriages are on display too, along with kitchen sets, utensils, toy washboards for the Sunday laundry and furniture - everything including the kitchen sink. There are dolls that belonged to movie stars, dolls that are famous, even one of a little boy who had the stuffing knocked out of him, and was filled with newspapers which carry the date 1941.

Of all the dolls on display do any of the collectors have their favourites? Hana Hodkova answered that question easily:

"My favourite is always the doll I am currently working on, that I am able to put back together, to restore just about to its original state. I do have a big collection because I collect all kinds - not just porcelain. My oldest piece is a Biedermeier with a head from Chinese porcelain dating back to 1848. In the exhibit I've got ninety-seven pieces but some stayed at home on the worktable!"

Hana Hodkova worked for years in theatre and TV in costume and prop design, and managed to combine her work with her passion: visiting various flea markets to search for replacement parts. As part of her full-time hobby, she's says that she has now collected and restored dolls for the past ten years. She says her hobby takes not only considerable patience but also talent.

"I'm not saying I know how to fix everything but it definitely takes some skill. All of us 'in' collecting know each other and try and help each other out. One lady I know specialises in porcelain, my speciality is cloth and the costumes. Sometimes, of course, it can be difficult and it can take years before a job is finished. I have a few broken dolls like that. Then, there are many which would deserve a second look: they're not quite perfect yet."

Perhaps the most difficult thing, though, for any collector is to explain to their children or grandchildren that rare and delicate specimens aren't for playing or borrowing. How does one deal with a situation like that? Not easily, says Hana!

"I have an eight-year old granddaughter who first didn't understand when someone gave me a baby carriage - she figured by rights it should belong to her and not her grandma! But, she knows 'why' now. So no, I don't lend the dolls, or if I do, not outside of their baby carriage!"

Viewing antiques like some of the beauties on display in "Dolls of Our Grandmothers" is interesting if only because so very little, in a way, has changed. In the 19th century paper and cloth dolls were the stuff dreams where made of for many children. There is something of that captured in the exhibit which lasts until February 2007.

Photo: Elena Horalkova