Topsy-Turvy doll, circa 1890–1905. Textile, paint. New-York Historical Society, 1961.30
The New-York Historical Society presents a landmark exhibition that explores handmade Black dolls through the lens of race, gender, and history. On view February 25 – June 5, 2022, Black Dolls immerses visitors in the world of dolls, doll play, and doll making while examining the formation of racial stereotypes and confronting the persistence of racism in American history. The exhibition examines how these toys serve as expressions of resilience and creativity, perseverance and pride, and love and longing. They provide a unique view of the history of race in America, revealing difficult truths and inviting visitors to engage in the urgent national conversation about the legacy of slavery and racism.
“While the names of the women who created these dolls are largely unknown, every stitch that they sewed into place is invaluable evidence of their lived experience, as well as a reflection of the larger historical forces of slavery and its legacy,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “We’re exceptionally proud to present this eye-opening exhibition and are grateful to all the lenders who have made it possible, led by Deborah Neff.”
Black Dolls features more than 200 objects, including 110 handmade dolls from the private collection of Deborah Neff, commercially produced 20th-century dolls, textiles, books, games, sewing tools, and ephemera from New-York Historical and other collections. Period photographs from the Neff Collection provide important context. Starting with dolls that reflect the horrors of slavery, the exhibition moves through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Dolls with detailed finery, often made from ingeniously repurposed sewing basket scraps, push back against negative racial stereotypes, while photographs that show white children playing with Black dolls and Black children holding white dolls complicate the narrative. The exhibition also depicts the rise of factory-made dolls and the growing emphasis on positive representation they embodied, as the slogan of the National Negro Doll Company stated: “Negro Dolls for Negro Children.”
Objects from the Deborah Neff collection include seven topsy-turvy dolls, which consist of a Black and white doll conjoined at the waist; an elegant doll in mid-19th century dress featuring hair made from imitation fur; a schoolboy crafted from remnants of materials, such as a mattress cover; a doll made with high-quality materials that highlights the intricate fashion of the late 19th century; and a dapper and well-dressed man in a three piece suit.
From a private collection are three dolls made by Harriet Jacobs, who escaped from slavery and physical violence. Jacobs made these dolls between 1850-1860 for the white children of the Willis family of New York, where she worked after her escape. In Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography, published in 1861, she recounts her desperate flight from slavery and her years spent in hiding—where she used sewing to relieve her loneliness—until she could reunite with her children in the north. A copy of Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is on view.
Three dolls from the 1930s on display were made by Leo Moss, a handyman in Macon, Georgia, who repurposed commercial dolls by remodeling their hair, features, and facial expressions and tinting their skin with boot dye until they resembled himself, family members, or neighbors.
Also on view is Addy Walker, the first Black character that American Girl added to its collection in 1993 to educate young children about American slavery and emancipation. Addy’s braided hair and West African cowrie shell necklace are memorable symbols of Black culture. She is accompanied by her own cloth doll, Ida Bean, and a quilt that was modeled on an 1854 family album quilt by Black quilter Sarah Ann Wilson.
Today, Black doll collectors continue to forge communities, both in person and online, to celebrate their shared interest. The exhibition ends with a slideshow featuring photos of contemporary doll collectors, including one of artist Betye Saar with her collection.
Black Dolls is curated by Margi Hofer, vice president and museum director, and Dominique Jean-Louis, associate curator.
Online Conversations and Family Programs
A series of online conversations, hosted by the Center for Women’s History, will take place throughout the exhibition’s run, providing in-depth looks at the themes explored in Black Dolls. Learn more at nyhistory.org.
Family labels guide kids through Black Dolls, exploring the history, craft, and people behind the dolls. Young visitors are greeted at the exhibition’s entrance by a doll whose image leads them through a kid-friendly interpretation of the exhibition, encourages them to look for specific details, and suggests topics to discuss with their family.
For families, March will feature a month-long celebration of the exhibition through doll making, costumed interpretation, and “bring your doll to the museum” days, culminating in a celebration of the American Girl doll Addy, whose birthday is April 9. Family programs will dive into the history of domestic workers in 19th-century New York City; the lives of enslaved children, pulling from first person accounts from the 19th century; the artistry and evolution of the headwrap; and the history of blackface. For additional details, visit the DiMenna Children’s History Museum family programs calendar.
The exhibition is generously supported by the Coby Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Decorative Arts Trust. Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Evelyn & Seymour Neuman Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
About New-York Historical Society
Experience 400 years of history through groundbreaking exhibitions, immersive films, and thought-provoking conversations among renowned historians and public figures at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first museum. A great destination for history since 1804, the Museum and the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library convey the stories of the city and nation’s diverse populations, expanding our understanding of who we are as Americans and how we came to be. Ever-rising to the challenge of bringing little or unknown histories to light, New-York Historical will soon inaugurate a new annex housing its Academy for American Democracy as well as the American LGBTQ+ Museum. These latest efforts to help forge the future by documenting the past join New-York Historical’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Center for Women’s History. Digital exhibitions, apps, and our For the Ages podcast make it possible for visitors everywhere to dive more deeply into history. Connect with us at nyhistory.org or at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr.