COLUMNIST: Michael Dowse - Clockwork dolls were the height of interest in the 1800s
The height of interest in automata was from the 1880s to the 1920s. One of the key forms of automata from this time was the figures dancing on French music boxes.
They were largely made for an adult audience by makers including Gaston Decamps, Fernard Martin and Leopold Lambert with designs such as flower sellers, acrobats and musicians being popular. Clockwork dolls with moving parts and sound were also made for children.
In fact the first walking doll was made as early as the 1820s while talking dolls took longer to perfect. Early examples produced sound due to the action of turning the doll’s arms or indeed the whole body with this exertion of pressure producing sound. Later from the 1880s, the pulling of a string became very common. However, these early talkers merely squeaked and it wasn’t until Edison’s invention of the miniaturized phonograph that the dolls finally spoke or sang. Dolls made in the 1890s containing the original tiny wax cylinder phonograph in their torsos are very rare today.
During this time, many new automata functions were being patented, not just the phonograph; one patent of particular interest was that of the ‘Mama Doll’ produced by Madame Hendren, the trademark of Averill Manufacturing Company. The ‘Mama Doll’ was a soft-bodied doll with composition head and composition lower arms and hands. What made her so unique was her voice box; when her body was tilted she cried out ‘Ma-ma’, hence the name. She is typically marked “Genuine Madame Hendren Doll”. These dolls became incredibly popular in America in the early 1920s.