In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dolls

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Professional Organizations
  • Sources of Data
  • Historical Perspectives
  • Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Childhood Studies Dolls
Elizabeth V. Sweet
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0155


Dolls are more than just the playthings of children—they are pieces of material culture that embody and convey social beliefs and values. While dolls play a vital role in the lives of children, the marginalized status of children and the taken-for-granted nature of material culture have contributed to the underrepresentation of toys in academic scholarship. Thus the literature on dolls is somewhat scattered and disparate, emerging from many different perspectives and fields, including history, psychology, sociology, communications and media studies, human development, cultural studies, folklore studies, and gender studies. Dolls also have been a topic of interest among collectors, journalists, and cultural critics. Research and writing about dolls have tended to center upon one or more central themes, including their material characteristics and manufacture, the cultural messages they embody and transmit, and the ways in which children interact and play with them. A central tension that runs throughout the diverse work on dolls is the extent to which their cultural meanings are universal or are multiple and contested. While early scholarship often presumed that dolls conveyed a static and unified meaning, more contemporary work has been attuned to the ways in which the cultural meanings of dolls vary according to context and are negotiated through interaction. Relatedly, a key debate among those who study dolls is the extent to which they directly shape the lives of children. Some scholars argue that dolls play a direct role in the socialization of children. Because dolls are embedded with, and communicate through play, limiting cultural beliefs about consumption, gender, and race, this perspective holds that dolls help to perpetuate social inequalities. Other scholars counter that children do not just absorb culture like sponges, but rather are purposeful social agents who actively interpret and contribute to it. From this point of view, doll play is a site where children interpret cultural messages, create social meaning, and actively carve out spaces of resistance to adult culture. These different perspectives are too rarely brought into full dialogue with one another, which is a shame because framing doll play as either wholly constraining or liberating neglects the many ways in which dolls are both. In fact, there are excellent studies that support each of these perspectives, and thus the ideal scholarship on dolls is attuned to both the constraining hegemonic messages they may convey and the varied ways in which children may reinterpret, and sometimes contest, these messages through play. In addition to providing a roadmap through these central themes and debates, this article also suggests readings about the variations in dolls and doll play over time and across place; explores the scholarship on gender and racial inequality and dolls; and suggests resources focused on particular types of dolls, like fashion dolls or action figures. The wide variety of sources included here—from academic scholarship to works aimed at collectors or the general public—reflects the eclectic nature of doll studies.

General Overviews

Given its diverse and often disparate nature, there are few general texts that afford a broad overview of doll research. Forman-Brunell 2012 offers the best and most concise of such pieces, outlining the past, present, and future of scholarship on dolls. The rest of the resources listed here provide an overview of dolls as material and play objects. The historic study of dolls in Ellis and Hall 1896 is a foundational text for those interested in dolls and doll play. Similarly, the study of historic dolls in Formanek-Brunell 1993 is an excellent entry point for those interested in dolls, gender, and consumer culture, while Bachmann and Hansmann 1973 offers a broader historical and cross-cultural overview of dolls as play objects. In addition, there are several texts focused more generally on toys in which rich discussions of dolls are prominently featured. Cross 1997 discusses dolls within a historical examination of the US toy industry, while communications scholarship in Kline 1993 and Seiter 1995 examines toys within the context of children’s media and marketing. Finally, the Strong National Museum of Play in New York holds a vast collection as well as many online resources devoted to dolls as play objects.

  • Bachmann, Manfred, and Claus Hansmann. Dolls the Wide World Over. Translated by Ruth Michaelis-Jena and Patrick Murray. New York: Crown, 1973.

    Provides a historical and cross-cultural overview of dolls as play objects. While dated, the breadth and depth of discussion and the many photographs and illustrations make this book a helpful primer to those interested in the variations in dolls across time and place.

  • Cross, Gary. Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    Historian Gary Cross provides a thorough analysis of 20th-century toys. Though focused broadly on the toy industry, discussions of dolls and doll play are woven heavily throughout. This is an approachable text for anyone interested in the broad history of the US toy market.

  • Ellis, A. Caswell, and G. Stanley Hall. “A Study of Dolls.” Pedagogical Seminary 4.2 (1896): 129–175.

    DOI: 10.1080/08919402.1896.10534804

    The first in-depth academic treatise on dolls. Using data drawn from two questionnaires, the authors provide detailed, exhaustive descriptions of the characteristics of children’s dolls and the precise natures of their doll play, along with an analysis of the psychological meanings of these observed patterns.

  • Formanek-Brunell, Miriam. Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830–1930. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

    Draws upon multiple sources of data to paint a detailed picture of the US doll industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In an insightful and rich analysis, Formanek-Brunell illustrates the shifting and contested cultural messages and meanings associated with dolls from the producer to the consumer.

  • Forman-Brunell, Miriam. “Interrogating the Meanings of Dolls: New Directions in Doll Studies.” In Special Issue: Girls and Dolls. Edited by Miriam Forman-Brunell. Girlhood Studies 5.1 (26 June 2012): 3–13.

    DOI: 10.3167/ghs.2012.050102

    This article introduces a special doll-focused edition of Girlhood Studies (see Journals) and provides an excellent overview of doll research, tracing the history of doll studies and outlining developing fields of scholarship.

  • Kline, Stephen. Out of the Garden: Toys, TV, and Children’s Culture in the Age of Marketing. New York: Verso, 1993.

    This dense, complex book offers an in-depth look at the history of toy marketing and its relationship to broader economic, social, and cultural forces. This text is focused generally on children’s media and the toy industry, but in-depth discussions of dolls and doll marketing are woven throughout.

  • Seiter, Ellen. Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

    Explores children’s media and consumer culture, with heavy emphasis on toy advertisements. While situating and problematizing the racialized, classed, and gendered aspects of children’s consumer culture, Seiter argues that concerns over children’s involvement in consumer culture have been overblown.

  • Strong National Museum of Play.

    The Strong Museum, located in Rochester, New York, is dedicated to the history and exploration of play. The museum sponsors research on play and has a vast collection of historical play objects, including dolls, as well as an extensive Library and Archive. Many of the dolls in the Strong’s collection can be viewed online.

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