A Sample of Antique Dolls

Last Updated 2/8/2024

By Jubilee P. Reid

Originally published on December 5, 2023

Among the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum’s extensive toy collection are many antique dolls with fascinating histories, from “Abbie,” one of the oldest artifacts in the museum, to a doll with chicken feather hair. Each unique doll was treasured by the many little children who have played with them throughout the centuries.

The most well-known doll in the collection is named Abbie Gardiner Waite Cottrell Burn, or for simplicity, just Abbie. Standing 12-inches-high, this 278-year-old artifact dates to approximately 1745 and was in existence long before the United States was even a country! George Washington was still a child when this doll was made. Abbie’s head, arms, and body are made of wood with a gesso finish and the legs are knitted and stuffed. Her face is hand painted and she has human hair. Her dress is made of black silk taffeta and a drawstring purse made of matching material is tied at the waist. Abbie’s headscarf, fichu, and handkerchief are all made of white silk organza. She also has a white cotton petticoat and black leather shoes. All her clothing is believed to be original.

The first known owner of Abbie was the family of prominent Boston physician, Sylvester Gardiner who founded Gardiner, Maine. The doll likely originally belonged to his first wife, Anne Gibbons. After Anne died, Dr. Gardiner was married twice more. It appears to have been his third wife, Catherine Goldthwaite, who, in around 1822, gave Abbie to Sarah Beere Waite Tucker (1807 – 1895). Sarah’s daughters had no interest in keeping the doll, so it was passed to Carolyn Beatrice Frink Cottrell (1876 – 1963), the wife of one of Sarah’s grandsons. In 1959, Carolyn gave it to her daughter Ellen Folsom Cottrell who married Harry T. Burn of Niota, Tennessee.

In December 1877, when under the ownership of Sarah Tucker, Abbie was exhibited at the Boston Old South Church Fair. For the admission of ten cents, fair-goers could view the already 132-year-old doll. At this fair, Abbie raised 22 dollars which went toward the preservation of the church steeple. Sixty years later, in 1937, Abbie was exhibited again at the first antiques show of the Rhode Island Historical Society, this time under the ownership of Carolyn Cottrell. The Doll Collectors of America Inc. exchanged letters with Mrs. Cottrell in 1940 concerning the doll and information about Abbie was placed in their archives. In the following years, Abbie was exhibited at many events and fundraisers. At one such event a dealer offered to buy the doll for 15 dollars though the offer was refused. In 1989 Abbie, on loan from the Burn family, was present at the grand opening of the museum’s current building and was at the museum’s first Christmas House. Abbie was not officially donated until 1999, after the death of Ellen Burn. And now, Abbie sits on a shelf for all museum visitors to view.

A few other interesting dolls in the museum include a simple 12-inch-high black cloth doll, dating to 1855. It wears a pale pink shirt and a tiered white skirt. This clothing was probably made from old clothes belonging to the maker. This doll appears to have seen much use in the 168 years it has been in existence as it is worn through in multiple places. It was donated in 1986 by Mr. & Mrs. Cullen Smith of Waco, Texas.

Another one of interest is a china doll from around 1870. This 5-inch-tall doll has china head, hands, feet, and hair and is wearing a bronze-colored dress. The dress has puffed sleeves and a billowing skirt. An unusual aspect of this doll is that the dress is filled with some sort of stuffing and sewn entirely closed at the base forming a cushion. This 7-inch-wide cushion keeps the entire doll sitting upright. It was donated to the museum in 1982 by Dorothy Thompson of Maryville, Tennessee.

Another 1870’s doll in the collection is a plain looking, 15-inch-tall cloth doll wearing a simple white dress. This one has facial features hand drawn onto it with ink and its hair is made from chicken feathers from the family’s chickens. This doll was donated in 1983 by one of the sons of Alice Bertie Barnes Proudfoot (1877 – 1931), the original owner. Alice was born in Nashville and married Dr. James Proudfoot who practiced throughout McMinn and Meigs counties. It was likely used by Alice’s daughters when they were children.

Also in our collection is an elaborate rag doll from between 1885 and 1900. It is 13 inches tall with an ornate grey/blue dress trimmed in black lace. The dress cascades in ruffles and has tiny flowers embroidered over the skirt. The face is embroidered onto this doll with a pale pinkish brown thread. Donated in 1990 by Mr. & Mrs. C. Scott Mayfield Sr. of Athens, this one has a hat made of the same fabric and lace as its dress.

These dolls represent many hours of happy play spent by the children who cared for them well enough to preserve them for hundreds of years. Now under the museum’s care, these dolls should last for many more years.

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