Part of my fascination with rag dolls is the fact that they are one of the most ancient children's toys in existence; dating from the 1st-5th century AD. For as long as there have been clothes for humans to wear, mothers have been fashioning dolls for their children, and not just their daughters. Boys and girls alike played with home-made rag dolls, lavishing them with love and care. Not until sometime in the 1780s in Colonial America were children encouraged to play with gender-specific toys. Little girls were given rag dolls to play with to learn how to care for babies, learn how to sew, and other duties a Mother would need to know.
A rag doll is any doll made primarily from fabric. Very simple to very lavish dolls were made with left over fabric for the body and clothes stuffed with whatever was available. Old nylon stockings made a soft stuffing but if not available a rag doll body might be stuffed with scraps of fabric too small for anything else or even sawdust. Scraps of lace, string or yarn served as hair. Faces were often painted on, embroidered (a first lesson in hand sewing for many young girls), or sometimes left plain.
Everytime I touch this Topsy Turvy doll I feel connected to its maker and its child. It was made by my mother’s grandmother and given to my mother when she was small, circa 18…
Learning the history of Topsy Turvy dolls helps connect me to generations well before this one was made. Topsy Turvy dolls have two cloth heads, one of which is hidden under a long skirt at any given time. Some of the oldest Topsy Turvy dolls have one black head and one white head. One tradition states that these dolls were made by black Mam’mys, slave women who cared for the plantation owner's white children. Often the very young children of the black Mam’my were allowed to play with the white children but not allowed to play with the white children’s toys. These cleverly designed Topsy Turvy dolls were used to fool the white parents: if the white child held the doll its white head was shown, if the black child held the doll its black head was shown. If the children played with the doll in the presence of the Mam’my they were free to play with it as they pleased! These dolls were a symbol of rebellion on the part of strong black slave women: I am connected to this strength through this doll and so are my children. What a legacy!