REMNANTS OF A LOST ERA: APPALACHIAN PRIMITIVE DOLLS

REMNANTS OF A LOST ERA: APPALACHIAN PRIMITIVE DOLLS

Burke, Alison

THROUGH THE NINETEENTH and early twentieth centuries, hardscrabble, isolated Appalachian settlers knew that making do with materials on hand was key to survival. Such resourcefulness carried over to even the toys crafted for children. Anything could serve as material for a plaything: pine cones, cornhusks, cotton, wool, homespun cloth, a feed sack, scraps of material, whittled pieces of wood, gourds, ears of com, even acorn heads. These provisional toymaking methods, practiced for many generations, have become a traditional part of Appalachian culture. One type of toy, Appalachian primitive dolls, has been a standard plaything for many children in the mountain communities of Alabama and northwards. But these dolls have also gained the attention of the world outside Appalachia, becoming highly sought-after by collectors of folk art.

Early primitive dolls constructed for children in these small mountain communities consisted of rocks, sticks, or corncobs embellished with paints and other natural items. Over the years, many other styles emerged. Wooden dolls were whittled from a single piece of wood, or whittled arms and legs were joined to cloth bodies or to wooden bodies with movable joints. Spoons, paddles, clothespins, and other wooden house utensils-with a little paint-would serve as well. Entire dolls were also made of cloth, with painted or embroidered facial features and hair. Some dolls had cloth bodies with a small round gourd, acorn, or apple for a head. Others were folded from one square piece of material with the head stuffed and tied for a neck. Knots tied in the upper two corners of this type of doll served as arms. Doll hair was sometimes made of flax fiber, with colors dyed on the stove in a canner.

Doll makers dressed their creations in homespun materials or in clothing found in mountain stores. They rescued and reused old quilts-accessorized with leftover remnants of fabric, yarn, and paint-as doll clothing. Because of their improvised construction, it can be extremely difficult to determine the age of primitive mountain dolls. The fabric used might have been stored in a seamstress’s house many years before the doll was made. Or more often, the clothing might have been replaced with newer fabrics after years of loving play.

One popular variation, the cornhusk doll, was fashioned by soaking cornhusks in water until pliable, then drying them and tying string or wire around the husk to form a doll shape. Some cornhusk dolls were designed without faces, the legacy of Appalachian folklore. Legend has it that an Indian princess saw and greatly admired her image in a reflection of water and, as punishment for her narcissism, had her face taken away. The legend lives on in the faceless cornhusk doll.

Another popular style, the poppet doll, is a regional Appalachian variation native to the mountains of Kentucky. Made from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1930s in homes or mission schools, poppets had cloth bodies with wooden heads, hands, and feet, whittled with a jackknife from buckeye, a light-colored, fine-grained wood. Fingers were marked by simple grooves in the wood. The facial features were drawn in with ink or pencil or were carved with recessed or convex eyes. Natural dye from the juice of pokeberries splashed a rosy glow on the cheeks. Poppet hair was either wool or animal fur.

In southern Appalachia, a wooden doll figure attached to a stick on the back became a unique percussion instrument. Galled a Limber Jack, clog doll, or Dancing Dan, the doll was used by Appalachian musicians to create the sound of dancers clogging. Loosely jointed, these wooden figures were suspended over a board or table by a rod or wire through their backs or attached to their heads, The player sat on one end of a board and suspended the doll over the free end of the board. When the player hit the free end of the board it moved up and down, hitting the doll and causing it to bounce. The Limber Jack became popular about the same time as the traveling minstrel shows of the late 1800s. His crazy tap dancing or “clogging” was similar to the lively performances seen and enjoyed by the mountain communities of this era.

As transportation improvements expanded the scope of Appalachian life, the craft of making primitive dolls transitioned into a means of livelihood. Mountain families initially had little access to markets to sell the dolls other than the general store. But in the early twentieth century, the craft of primitive doll making expanded into a small industry as railroads and automobiles brought the outside world closer. Cottage home industries and craft guilds formed to help rural Appalachian families supplement their meager incomes by selling their crafts.

During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration helped to widely commercialize mountain handicrafts in praise and recognition of the Appalachian people’s hardy lifestyle. Mountain crafts and commercial craft industries began to gain some popularity in the 1930s. Craft guilds like Allanstand Cottage Industries and Kimport marketed mountain folk dolls crafted by Appalachian people. Missionaries also generated broad interest in the dolls by establishing catalogs, which allowed craftcrs to market their dolls without leaving their farms.

The practice of making primitive dolls survives today in parts of Appalachia. The few authentic mountain crafters working today stay true to the tradition of this unique type of doll making, using only natural colors and materials. There are guilds still in operation throughout Appalachia, as well, in such places as Berea, Kentucky, and Boone, North Carolina. Southern Highland Graft Guild in Asheville, North Carolina, is another notable supplier of authentic primitive dolls.

The dolls remain most valuable, however, for the sheer tradition they exhibit. These dolls are a stark example of how far children’s toys have evolved, and as such, they speak to a simpler, slower-paced time, when the craft of toymaking was a more tedious process, but one that was tightly woven into the traditions of small communities. The dolls model this tradition, as well as the Appalachian way of making do with materials on hand. In doing so, they teach the children who play with them an important lesson-as any good toy should do.

Alison Burke is a freelance writer and author based in Lemoore, California.

Copyright University of Alabama Press Fall 2003

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