Name: Topsy Dolls
Made by and When: The composition Topsies have unknown circa 1920s-1930s makers. The two modern dolls are made of vinyl and plastic, 1956 and 1960s.
Material: Composition, stuffed vinyl, and plastic
Marks: The composition dolls are unmarked.
The vinyl doll’s head is marked 2 / 1182 / Reliable / Made in Canada.
Made in Japan is on the back of the 1960s Topsy.
Height: These dolls range in size from 5 inches to 16 inches. The dolls in the group photo range in size from 7 inches to 12 inches. The two toddler Topsies (dolls with straight legs) are 12 inches and 16 inches, respectively.
Composition Dolls; Hair, Eyes, Mouth: Typically, Topsy dolls have three tufts of hair that represent plaits; one in the top center of the head and two on the sides. Black embroidery thread was usually used for the hair. It is sometimes replaced with black yarn. The eyes of the composition dolls are painted and usually side-glance to the dolls’ right. The mouths are closed with painted red lips.
Modern Topsies; Hair, Eyes, Mouth: The 1960s plastic doll has rooted black hair styled in a ponytail with bangs. The ponytail has two braids. The eyes are painted brown. The mouth is closed with painted red lips. The Reliable doll has two molded braids. The brown eyes glance to the doll’s right. The doll by Reliable has an open/closed mouth with a molded and painted pink tongue and lips.
Clothes: Most of the composition dolls and the Reliable Topsy are redressed as illustrated. The 16-inch composition Topsy with the deepest complexion wears an original pink floral dress and matching bonnet. The Reliable doll has molded-on white socks and red shoes. The 5-inch plastic Topsy (sold in a baggie to be dressed) is nude with molded-on white socks and red shoes.
Other: The curator’s personal blog post about Topsy dolls indicates, “The use of the name Topsy for dolls was inspired by the Black enslaved child of the same name featured in Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Prior to its book form, Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared in the antislavery newspaper, The National Era, from June 1851 to April 1852.
“Chapter 20 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin describes Topsy as follows:
“She was one of the blackest of her race; and her round shining eyes, glittering as glass beads, moved with quick and restless glances over everything in the room. Her mouth, half open with astonishment at the wonders of the new Mas’r’s parlor, displayed a white and brilliant set of teeth. Her woolly hair was braided in sundry little tails, which stuck out in every direction. The expression of her face was an odd mixture of shrewdness and cunning, over which was oddly drawn, like a kind of veil, an expression of the most doleful gravity and solemnity. She was dressed in a single filthy, ragged garment, made of bagging; and stood with her hands demurely folded before her.
“From the early-to-mid 1900s, many doll companies chose the name, Topsy, for Black dolls and incorporated a minimum of three braids or tufts of hair on the dolls’ heads in an effort to portray the book’s character.”
The practice of naming dolls Topsy continued well into the 1960s with the dolls’ hairstyles progressing from three tufts of hair to rooted ponytails or molded pigtails as illustrated by the 5-inch plastic doll and the Topsy by Reliable. Additionally, Ralph A. Freundlich, Inc.’s Goo-Goo Topsy (1937-1940s) had molded curls. The Nancy Ann Storybook company produced a line of braidless Topsy dolls inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin made of bisque (1930s) and hard plastic (1948-1950s) as illustrated here.
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