Penn State

Jacqueline J. Reid-Walsh - Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction / Women's Studies, Penn State University Park

Book Title: Handmade Victorian House Maid Paper Polls

Author: anonymous

Book Description:

This pair of handmade paper dolls depicts two Victorian house maids, a woman and a girl, probably dating from the 1880s. They were created by someone who combined cut-out heads and, in the girl’s case, the torso and one leg (the second one likely lost), from fashion magazines, with paper costumes that are hand drawn, hand colored, and cut out. The front view shows the effective merging of commercial print with personal art making using recycled paper and creating realistic details such as ruffled edges. The back view shows how the dolls were constructed, including shoulder tabs for the adult’s apron. In each case the maker has modified the printed fashion images that were obviously not depicting servants but affluent women, and has transformed them into domestic servants through creative play.


We know nothing more about these paper dolls. Perhaps a girl or an older relative made these two items from fashion magazines as an addition to a dollhouse or more appropriately for a paper doll-house book. Was she improvising due to necessity?


These small artifacts are important because they give us an inlet into an earlier girls’ culture. What intrigues me is that in previous decades, before the spread of popular fashion magazines, these dolls would have been totally homemade. But because they were constructed in the late 19th century, when print matter was readily available, girls could appropriate and reuse fashion illustrations. We think of “modding” as being a contemporary phenomenon. But what we see here is a combination of modifying and making from scratch, practices that are suggestive of modern modes of creativity.

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