Edith Paton with her rag dolls, Florence, Jane, David, Baby Dumpling, Betty Boop – 1933
“Each doll is a conscious individual creation…The individual nature that comes from conscious creation of folk art dolls make them a rich source in information about their maker’s past, economic and cultural traditions. By examining the creations we can extract a very wide sweeping narrative about the maker and her world.” – The History of Toys – Creation in the Hand
The notebook arrived first, followed a few weeks later by the box of dolls – a gift from my Cousin, Alan Garfield, from my Nana Paton’s collection. Emmie, Bessie and Cookie are among the dolls described in my Nana’s notebook, titled “My Dolls.” The notebook chronicles just some of the many dolls my grandmother made and collected over the decades. As early as the 1920’s she crafted dolls ─ rag dolls, some of which she sold during the Depression for about $2.00 each. Considered the oldest toy in existence, rag dolls have been around for centuries. During the years of the Great Depression, they were hugely popular in the United States. Raggedy Ann, perhaps the most famous rag doll, created by Johnny Gruelle in 1915, became the subject of his book, Raggedy Ann Stories, published in 1918. Her brother Raggedy Andy was introduced two years later. Also referred to as folk-art dolls, rag dolls are individually crafted from any materials on hand, mostly from scraps collected in the family rag bag. My Nana’s rag bag was filled with not only discarded pieces of fabric, but a variety of materials – leather, yarn, feathers, even rubber.
The doll named “Joe – I made this doll from an inner tube when we lived in Wells. ME in 1939. Wool chinchilla cloth for hair.” – Edith Paton
Nana not only created rag dolls, she also made entire outfits for the other dolls in her collection. Handmade crochet yarn and leather dresses, feathered hats, tiny broaches, capes, corsages, scarves, and necklaces adorn her dolls. Many have sandals made from discarded plastic or leather shoes with tiny laces. One doll wears a dress made entirely from a clear plastic bag.
Nana fashioned clothes and accessories for her many dolls – a bridal dress with veil & corsage on far left, a crochet dress on far right back, handmade red sandals on doll sitting in the middle and far right doll has dress made entirely from a plastic bag
When the box arrived I carefully removed and examined each doll, one by one. Although the years had clearly taken a toll on some of their once unique and stylish outfits, the creativity and skill of their crafter was immediately obvious. Perhaps, I thought, I would gain insight into my Nana, who I only knew from our occasional Sunday visits to her home in New Hampshire when I was a child.
One of the most interesting descriptions in the Notebook offers a peak into my Nana’s world. It is the doll named “Emmie”
“Doris bought this plastic baby doll from Viola, 50 cents. She had figured dress, panties and socks on. Artificial rooted blond hair. She has a knob on her back which when turned she jerks her head. A look of misery on her face she cries. She looks so miserable and has spasms, so I thought she should be named after me. I called her “Misery Edith” at first but that seemed hardly fair, so I shortened it to the initials “M.E.” which comes out “Emmie.”– Edith Paton
My Nana was troubled with health problems throughout her life. There are many entries in her diary describing various ailments and numerous doctor visits. Some described my Nana as a hypochondriac and perhaps she was ─ I don’t know. I do know that by the time I got to know her, during our Sunday visits, she was most always in bed. Not that she seemed sick. She was always kind and sweet, nicely dressed. She was also smart, well-read, artistically creative and engaging. Pictures reveal she had a great sense of style. One of my favorite pictures of my Nana taken with my Dad and his sister Doris, shows her dressed in a white shirt and neck tie, and sporting a very fashionable 1920’s bobbed haircut.
Edith Paton with her children, Doris and Wally – 1929
In her younger years the diary reveals an active woman. Busy with raising children, sewing dolls, canning and putting food up for the long winter ahead, making entire outfits for herself and her children, taking day trips to other parts of New Hampshire or Maine and making scrapbooks. Over the course of several decades she made nineteen scrapbooks which she gave to various family members and friends.
List of 19 scrapbooks Nana made for friends and family over the decades
So I wonder what sent her to her “sick bed” later in life. Could it be that she never really got over the death of her 1st born son on his second day of life? Could it be that the two breast surgeries in 1938 and 1939 sent her into an emotional tailspin. I never heard anything about her having cancer ─ she lived to be 80 and would die in 1983 of what they would call “old age.” My Dad talked about her having a bad stomach, getting a goat on recommendation of her physician that the goat milk might help her. Dad says “it didn’t do a thing.”
Edith with her goats – 1942
Nana made entire outfits for her children, Doris & Wally Paton – 1929
Many of the names in her doll notebook are familiar ones. The first page describes a doll named “Bessie Race.” Bess or Bessie was a popular name during that time – my Aunt Bess Garfield was born in 1918.
“About 24 inches long. Jointed body, auburn hair. I earned this doll by getting up an Ames Soap order. Got the doll in 1908. She had on a white lace trimmed dress and red satin shoes. Her hair was long and curly but time and the moths worked on it and I cut her hair when bobbed hair came in. Sold her in 1969 for $35.00.”– Edith Paton
Doris Paton Garfield with doll named “Bessie” – 1928
And then there is the doll named Grace:
“This small doll was sent to Doris at Christmas from Grace Paton. Probably 1926 or 1927. We lived in Amherst. Jointed, and her eyes open and close. She had been packed away for many years. In April 1968 I made her a new wig from some of my hair. Her pink dress and bonnet trimmed with ecru lace was probably made by Doris. On her neck is marked Heubach Koppelsdorf, 300-13/0, Germany. Sold her for Doris in 1969 for $10.”– Edith Paton
Germany and France were the primary doll makers until World War I. Ernest Heubach dolls were manufactured in Germany from 1887-1932. Mold #300, as described above, was one of their most popular dolls. World War I forced the closing of many of the doll factories in Germany and France, after which the United States took over the lead until the Great Depression put an end to many of America’s doll manufacturers as well. Those that managed to survive were modeling dolls after movie stars like Shirley Temple.
A doll named “Cooky or Cookie, 1946” perhaps gives a clue to a nickname Nana may have given to her first born grandson, David, born in 1943.
“Large rag doll I made of brown cloth. I made for David when he and Doris came to live with us in Grasmere while Bill was overseas, World War II. He wears a pair of shoes that were David’s.” – Edith Paton
Cookie still resides with my Cousin Alan who fondly remembers the doll from his visits to Nana’s house.
“I also have the doll named “Cookie” in my living room that was written up in the Notebook… I think I will keep that one as it was a regular part of my growing up ─ whenever I would visit Nana he was always sitting near her!”– Alan Garfield
Some of Nana’s handmade doll accessories – knitted cape and matching hat, socks made from hosiery, blue leather shoes with matching string laces and capes
I don’t remember the exact year that my Nana surprised me with my very own handcrafted “Rag Doll Family.” Even as a child I knew these dolls were special – like no others I’d ever seen.
“One year, she presented me with a family of dolls obviously meant to represent my family—a father, mother and three children (2 boys and a girl)—which she placed in a handmade box with a thick plastic cover for viewing each of them standing side by side. The “father” wore a suit, and in one of the pockets she put a shiny new penny, which for me at a young age was a treasure. These were not dolls for playing house; they were a work of art. Often, though, I did take each out and examine the intricate sewing—especially of the clothes. But the penny in the pocket fascinated me. I loved examining it and then carefully returning it to the tiny suit pocket.” – excerpt from Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy – Bonnie Paton Moon
My Rag Doll Family gifted to me in the 1950’s by Nana Paton
My Nana was a gifted and talented woman ─ a skilled seamstress, a painter, photographer, a farmer’s wife who raised two children during the difficult years of the Great Depression. Whatever her infirmities, she seemingly had a full and productive life. And she left behind a great gift to those who came after her in her many photographs, paintings, dairies, scrapbooks and dolls.