Dolls Through the Ages
Caring for collectibles
photo courtesy of louisiana division/city archive, New Orleans public library
“Baby Betty,” beloved childhood toy and treasured possession of Karen Perschall, “is a china-headed babydoll, the size of a real baby. I think she’s one of the German ones, with the open mouth and teeth, and a wood composite body, probably from around 1913.” The doll was originally her mother’s.
“My grandchildren can touch her – but only with one finger,” she admits – and Baby Betty is a prized, if not very accessible, resident of Perschall’s doll and toy room, equipped for her grandchildren.
Perschall isn’t the only one who still treasures her dolls. Flo Schornstein had a fondness for Madame Alexander “Storybook” characters, and she has the dolls still.
“Every time I had an occasion –
a birthday, say – I got another one. Each doll was dressed like a character in a nursery rhyme, like ‘Little Bo-Peep.’” Schornstein kept them for her children. Like most much-loved Madame Alexander dolls, hers had their hair combed by little hands and never recovered from the attention.
In the past, when New Orleans dolls were broken, they were taken to the Doll Hospital. As advertised in the Daily Picayune, a Mrs. Wehrmann had a Doll Hospital on Baronne Street in 1900. By ’13, the Doll Hospital was located at 513 Bourbon St., and “The Original Doll Hospital” was located at 2320 Magazine St. by ’21.
According to The Times-Picayune obituary of Mrs. Emile F. Voitier in 1952, as Clementine Wehrmann she had continued to operate the Doll Hospital that had been begun by her mother on Baronne Street and lived for 40 years at the Magazine Street location. She “did most of the doll repair work herself, although she was assisted at times by her husband, a retired employee of New Orleans Public Service, Inc.” Mrs. Voitier was survived, appropriately, by five daughters.
While there is no Doll Hospital today in New Orleans, there’s one in Slidell: Treasured Collectibles – Doll Hospital where Kristy Neal offers “professional restoration and repair of all types of dolls” (Treasured-Collectibles.com).
New Orleans has also been home to some major doll collectors. According to Ann Masson, board member at the Beauregard & Keyes House and Garden Museum, Frances Parkinson Keyes’ extensive doll collection (depicting various countries’ costumes and a variety of nuns’ habits) has been carefully conserved, awaiting later restoration – “But we keep a few dolls out, and we do have a tea party for them,” she says. Children are always invited to bring their own dolls to the tea party.
Author Anne Rice’s large doll collection was housed in the St. Elizabeth’s building on Napoleon Avenue at Prytania Street for many years. (Included among Rice’s china-headed antique beauties was a Barbie doll dressed in motorcycle leathers.) Rice’s dolls figured in her books, as in the novel Taltos, where the main character, Ashlar’s, doll was actually one of Rice’s rare French antiques, a Bru bébé. Rice’s doll collection was sold at an auction in 2010 in Chicago – and the Bru bébé went for $40,000.
New Orleans’ Cabrini Doll Museum was operated by the New Orleans Recreation Department in a cottage at 1218 Burgundy St. – the building was bought in 2006 and lovingly restored by John Reed and Jon Kemp, for which they, and architects Frank Masson and Rick Fifield, received a Vieux Carré Commission award.
The doll museum, in the years around the 1970s, housed the Haspel doll collection. Harry and Rosine Haspel began acquiring dolls during a trip around the world in ’38, as gifts for their new granddaughter, Barbara Haspel Galey, daughter of Leo and Muriel Haspel.
In the late 1930s, items from the Haspel doll collection, which were on view in the New Orleans Public Library building on Lee Circle, went to Godchaux’s Department Store for their ’40s centennial, and were displayed at Le Petit Théâtre and at the Cabildo in the French Quarter, and at Metairie Park Country Day School while grandchild Barbara was a student.
Galey still has African dolls from the collection, and her son has Balinese puppets that have been fully restored. The hundreds of items in the Haspel collection included wax figures of New Orleans street venders from the Vargas-Resado family, dolls dressed in native costumes and antique French fashion dolls.
Galey’s grandparents can rest assured that, through the years, those dolls gave pleasure to many New Orleans children.