The sad little girl with tears on her ebony face was crafted around 1922 by Leo Moss. It’s said the African-American carpenter and handyman from Macon, Georgia, began making dolls on the side to bring home some additional money. He bought doll parts from a traveling toy salesman, assembled them, and then clothed them in cotton outfits sewed by his wife.

At first, Moss made white dolls. Then between the 1890s and his death in 1936, Moss began making Black dolls, sensitively resculpting the white features with papier-mache made from wallpaper scraps and colored with boot dyes or chimney soot. But why is this one crying?

This crying doll is one of three Moss dolls in the exhibition “Black Dolls,” at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan from Feb. 25 to June 5, 2022, which was curated by Margi Hofer, vice president and museum director, and Dominique Jean-Louis, associate curator.

“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,” the museum says.

The show is also example of how Black Americans have endeavored to sensitively define their own humanity in the face of racist caricature and violent and systemic oppression by whites.

“Black Dolls” showcases 200 objects, including 110 handmade dolls from the private collection of Deborah Neff of suburban Connecticut, mainly made in the United States between the 1850s and 1940s. The exhibition also offers commercially produced 20th-century dolls, textiles, books, games, sewing tools, and period photographs.

Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), Dolls made for the Willis family children, ca. 1850-60.
Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897), Dolls made for the Willis family children, ca. 1850-60. Mixed fabrics, metal. Private Collection. Photo: Glenn Castellano. “Harriet Jacobs is best known for her harrowing account of the human degradation and physical violence of slavery and her dramatic escape to freedom. After reaching New York City in 1842, Jacobs found work caring for the children of writer Nathaniel Parker Willis. Jacobs crafted these dolls for the Willis daughters, Imogen, Lillian, and Edith, who passed them down in the family for generations.”

Among the highlights are three dolls by Harriet Jacobs, whose celebrated 1861 autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” recounts her escape from slavery in North Carolina and nearly seven years in hiding. After winning her freedom, she made these dolls for the white children of the Willis family between 1850 to 1860, for whom she worked as a nanny in New York City.

Among the most recent dolls are a “Baby Nancy” doll from around 1968, created by Los Angeles’ Shindana Toys, which came out of the Civil Rights movement as “a company designed to uplift the struggling neighborhood and create jobs,” according to curators, and employed local Black women to sew outfits for the African-American dolls.

Leo Moss’s dolls usually have glass eyes and bodies of cloth or wood. Sometimes they have voice boxes inside, and are incised with his initials, L.M., and have a label sewn onto the chest with a name and year of creation—in the case of the crying doll here: “Mabel Lincoln 1922.”

Many of Moss’s Black dolls remained in his family until the 1970s, when collectors learned about them and began buying them up.

Legends have grown up about the doll tears. Moss made the dolls cry, some say, if a child cried while he was making the doll. Another story claims that Moss made the dolls cry after his wife left him for New York and the man from whom he bought the doll parts—taking their child with her.

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Leo Moss (d. 1936), Doll with tears, Macon, GA, ca. 1922
Leo Moss (d. 1936), Doll with tears, Macon, GA, ca. 1922. “Mabel Lincoln 1922” handwritten on label sewn to torso. Manufactured body, cotton, papier-mâché, glass. Collection of Deborah Neff. Photo: Ellen McDermott Photography. “As a handyman in Macon, Georgia, Leo Moss would take home scraps of wallpaper and use them as papier-mache to sculpt layers onto manufactured dolls he found or traded for. He remodeled the hair, features, and even the facial expressions of the dolls, finishing by tinting the skin with boot dye, until they resembled himself, family members, or neighbors.”
Unidentified photographer, Woman and children with Black cloth dolls, 1942.
Unidentified photographer, Woman and children with Black cloth dolls, 1942. Gelatin silver print, Deborah Neff Collection. “Surviving photographs of Black children with Black dolls are quite rare. The images invite us to consider the experience of childhood during a period when the nation was divided by color lines and ponder how children navigated their racial identity.”
Cynthia Walker Hill (1771-1848) Doll representing an enslaved man, ca. 1840-48
Cynthia Walker Hill (1771-1848) Doll representing an enslaved man, ca. 1840-48 Cotton, silk, glass, wire, pearl. New Bedford Whaling Museum, Gift of Mrs. M. Motley Sargeant, 1953.1.2. “The horrors of slavery are palpable in this doll, a fugitive from slavery wearing a three-pronged slave collar around his neck. The doll was made by Cynthia Hill, a fervent abolitionist from Providence, Rhode Island. A hotbed of abolitionist activity, Providence was one of many New England towns that formed antislavery societies in the 1830s.”
Topsy-turvy doll, 1890-1905
Topsy-turvy doll, 1890-1905, Mixed fabrics, paint, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Katharine Prentis Murphy, 1961.30. Photo: Glenn Castellano. “Two dolls, one white, one black, are conjoined at the waist. A shared skirt flips over the head of one doll, concealing it to reveal the face of the other. So-called topsy-turvy dolls invite active play, with the doll and the concept of race itself. But this simple toy carries complex meaning. Although topsy-turvy dolls were popular among children at the turn of the 20th century and later, questions remain about their intended purpose.”
Pleasant Company/American Girl, Addy Walker doll, ca. 1993
Pleasant Company/American Girl, Addy Walker doll, ca. 1993, Plastic, mixed fabrics, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Nicole Wagner & Wagner family, 2019.32. Photo: Glenn Castellano. “In 1993, after initial success with their American Girl line of dolls that incorporated stories from American history, the Pleasant Company launched its first Black character, Addy Walker, to tell the story of American slavery and emancipation. Scholars of African American history contributed their insights to develop a powerful narrative of the horrors of slavery and the triumphant perseverance of Black families. Addy even came with her own cloth doll, Ida Bean.”
Newspaper advertisement: “Pick Out Your Great Big Beautiful Doll” Nashville Globe, October 17, 1913
Newspaper advertisement: “Pick Out Your Great Big Beautiful Doll,” Nashville Globe, October 17, 1913. “In the early 20th century, many commercially-available Black dolls reflected derogatory stereotypes. The National Negro Doll Company became the first American firm to retail Black dolls with a positive image in 1908. Founder Richard Henry Boyd first sold imported dolls, but by 1911 he began manufacturing them, promoted with the slogan ‘Negro Dolls for Negro Children.’”
Pair of dolls with corduroy knickers, ca. 1895- 1915, possibly New Hampshire
Pair of dolls with corduroy knickers, ca. 1895- 1915, possibly New Hampshire, Mixed fabrics, leather, animal fur, porcelain. Deborah Neff Collection. Photo: Ellen McDermott Photography. “Attired in corduroy britches and printed cotton shirts, these schoolboys also sport mischievous grins.”
J.C. Patton, Indianapolis, IN. Domestic scene, ca. 1915
J.C. Patton, Indianapolis, IN. Domestic scene, ca. 1915 Gelatin silver print Deborah Neff Collection. “Surviving photographs of children and their dolls from the 1850s through the 1920s provide vivid context for the exhibition. Strikingly, the majority of extant photographs with handmade Black dolls show them in the hands of white children, while images of Black children more often than not depict them holding white dolls. In this image, Black photographer James Patton posed a prosperous Indianapolis family in their parlor, surrounded by their cherished possessions.”
Gordon Parks (1912-2006), Untitled [Doll Test], Harlem, New York, 1947.
Gordon Parks (1912-2006), Untitled [Doll Test], Harlem, New York, 1947. Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation, © The Gordon Parks Foundation. “In 1954, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall argued against racially segregated schools before the Supreme Court. He asked Black sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark to submit testimony for Brown v. Board of Education. The Clarks used dolls identical except for skin color and asked children to compare them: “Which is the doll that looks like you?” “Which is the good doll?” They found that Black children preferred the white doll. Marshall argued that the Clarks’ research proved racial segregation harmed Black children and produced feelings of inferiority. The Supreme Court cited the test as particularly influential in their decision.”
Doll with apron, late 19th century
Doll with apron, late 19th century, Mixed fabrics, mother of pearl, beads Deborah Neff Collection, Photo: Ellen McDermott Photography. “The Mammy or Dinah stereotype emerged during slavery and crystalized after emancipation. Perhaps America’s most familiar Dinah figure is Aunt Jemima, a character launched at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 to sell pancake mix. Nancy Green, a formerly enslaved domestic worker, acted the part. As Aunt Jemima’s popularity soared, some doll makers resisted the stereotype by creating highly individualized Black dolls like this one.”
Doll in gentleman’s top coat, 1860-70 Milton, MA
Doll in gentleman’s top coat, 1860-70 Milton, MA, Mixed fabrics, leather, brass, glass. Deborah Neff Collection
Photo: Ellen McDermott Photography. “A handwritten note accompanying this doll states that it was stitched by a member of the Badger family of Milton, Massachusetts, and sold to support Union soldiers during the Civil War. This dignified gentleman defies racist stereotypes, perhaps a goal of doll makers for antislavery and Civil War era fundraising fairs. Some abolitionist families encouraged their children to play with dolls like this to help instill humanitarian values.”
Doll in feed sack dress, 1900-25
Doll in feed sack dress, 1900-25, Possibly Indiana, Mixed fabrics, paint, Deborah Neff Collection, Photo: Ellen McDermott. Photography. “Whether by necessity or by habit, doll makers often took a frugal approach to their craft. Needlewomen recycled outgrown clothes, worn socks, threadbare linens, or scraps of dress fabric and gave them new life as elegant outfits or doll components. A resourceful doll maker made this doll’s dress from a seed sack, positioning the Farm Bureau Co-op logo to evoke an apron.”
Doll in blue skirt, 1890-1900
Doll in blue skirt, 1890-1900, Mixed fabrics, metal, Deborah Neff Collection, Photo: Ellen McDermott Photography. “Dolls don’t often survive with their original clothing. Outfits (and bodies) frequently endured zealous affection, rough play, and wardrobe updates. Certain details—the shape of a dress sleeve, the cut of a man’s coat, the style of a boy’s trousers—can offer clues for dating a doll’s costume. This doll wears its original outfit, including an umbrella skirt, a style popular during the 1890s.”
Categories: Art Design