Discover more from cosmic playdate
the lost art of paper dolls
and why we should bring them back + a printable!
I hope your fall has been quite cozy thus far. I am so excited Halloween month is finally here. I’ve been looking forward to indoor crafts, apple treats and dressing up with my little ladies for a while now. The air is crisp, the cider hot and I am ready for fall decor. Let’s do this!
As a little girl, I used to love paper dolls and dedicated hours to finicking with their outfits, drawing new details on their faces, crafting them original accessories, and most of all, playing make-believe until the paper they were printed on dissolved. Paper dolls were not only a vehicle for creativity, but a path for myself and many others to finesse fine motor skills, practice new language and master abstract thinking. This recent memory gave me the idea to create a set of paper dolls as a Halloween craft for this year, especially now that my eldest recognizes herself in Emilia, who I fashioned after her. She is genuinely excited to play with new iterations of this character and I am happy to oblige.
So without further ado—please read on to learn about the history of paper dolls, why they matter and to take a peek at the one I have created!
Paper Dolls—A brief History
Modern paper dolls date back to the 18th-century jumping-jack, also known as a pantin in France. These jointed paper figures were used by adults as puppets to satirize the noble classes. Common pantins were inspired by Commedia dell ‘arte characters like Harlequin, Pulcinella, and Pierrott the clown. To fashion one of these dolls, one had to cut out each piece separately and then add fastenings to attach the limbs to make them jump and dance. But despite being dressed in contemporary styles, pantins did not come with an assortment of paper fashions or accessories.
By the mid-1700s, paper dolls with exchangeable wardrobes began appearing in major fashion centers like London, Paris, and Berlin, as a way to advertise the latest sartorial styles. However, their big breakthrough came in 1796 with the invention of lithography, which allowed publishers to create larger runs of exquisitely detailed paper figures.
In 1810 S&J Fuller created the first manufactured paper doll, named Little Fanny. The kit documented her escapades and provided a doll to play with and accessorize.
Two years later, a Boston company called J. Belcher created “The History and Adventures of Little Henry,” with a head tab and outfits meant to be attached to it. Soon after, paper dolls were published in magazines, such as the then popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping. Newspapers hopped on the bandwagon next, printing new versions weekly to illustrate the latest style trends for women and children. By the early 1900s, there were millions of paper dolls sold every year. Whereas the first paper dolls intended to provide play for children sprinkled with a few moral lessons, the ones from the early 20th century focused on fashion, selling both glamour for women and a distraction for the little ones.
The Golden Age of Paper Dolls came between the decades of 1930s and 1950s, when paper was more affordable than other goods. During the Great Depression, paper dolls helped keep children occupied without great cost and served as escapism from their eventful lives, displaying a world of beauty that was inaccessible to many. Subsequently during WWII, paper was one of the few items free from rationing, which explained the rise of the toy’s popularity. By the 1940s, paper dolls became even more detailed and interesting, reflecting the leisure fashions of the day, bridal themes and professional environments.
In the 1960s, paper dolls began to decline in popularity. Many claim this was due to the influence of Barbie, who fulfilled much of the same purpose, but in a more realistic, three-dimensional way. In fact, the only paper dolls to survive this dip in the market were the Barbie and Skipper ones. These days, you’ll find contemporary reimaginings of paper dolls in sticker versions, magnetic dress-up kits or printables—like the one I’ve created.
Working on this project I have learned so much about these dolls, their history and benefits. Paper dolls are more than a craft, they are a vehicle for pretend play. The influence they initiate in infancy extends all the way to adulthood, when we put into use our imagination to solve problems, invent new things, enjoy a movie or find creative solutions to our problems. That’s why Albert Einstein said:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.
Five benefits to playing with paper dolls
1. Enhances the ability to think creatively
According to research, quiet play – and even boredom – can enhance a child’s ability to think more creatively. Working on crafts builds a kid’s ability to be flexible and imaginative, while cultivating their independence and providing them with a sense of accomplishment once they complete their task.
2. Supports social and emotional development
As kids pretend to be different people or control their paper dolls, they are practicing important social and emotional roles of life. Learning empathy by switching their perspective (often to mom or dad) which in turn develops their self-esteem, self-awareness and their ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings.
3. Improves language and communication skills
While playing with paper dolls our kids have the opportunity to practice new language that they might not encounter every day. The opportunity to pretend play gives them control and can help decrease anxiety as language becomes more familiar. I also like to use these playful moments as a way to introduce new subjects for discussion to my eldest daughter in a relaxed environment when the need arises.
4. Develops thinking, learning, and problem-solving
By the nature of pretend play, children are presented with problems and scenarios to solve or plan, which in turn allows them to rehearse how to cope when something doesn’t go according to plan in a game or in life. It also engages them in practicing abstract thinking (when an object/person takes on a different meaning) and improves their memory.
5. Enhances fine physical skills
By cutting, dressing and playing with paper dolls, kids can keep on developing and practicing their fine motor skills without pressure and at their own pace.
If you wish to extend an invitation to play creatively to—or with—your kids, you can find the Emilia Paper Doll in the button below. It has a pay-what-you-wish option if you are so inclined to support me and my work!
Until next time. Stay curious and play!