Sunday, November 16, 2014

My Life on Paper

The drinkers

Paper Dolls are very much the fabric of my life. Back in the dark days BB (before Barbie) grown-up dolls were few and far between. Paper dolls, on the other hand, fueled that fantasy, whether for Hollywood stars, wedding parties, or the land of future enchantment (I was sure), the teenage years.

The wavers

The end of WWII brought on intensified marketing to teenagers. During the Depression many teens gave up dreams of college— even of high school graduation— and worked to help the family. They grew up fast. WWII saw great numbers of 17- and 18-year-olds shipped off to war, where they grew up fast. Prosperity and the promise of peace after 1945 signaled an optimistic future. Bobbysoxers became viable consumers. My sister was about 15 at the time, and she seemed to be having a lot of fun. I could hardly wait for my turn.

Original rough sketch— so cute

I've held forth about paper dolls in the blog before. I played with them; I made them; I was one. For years Merrimack reproduced original paper dolls— cardboard covers with die-cut dolls and newsprint pages of clothing. B. Shackman was a favorite store in New York City to carry them. Alas, Shackman on 16th Street and Fifth Avenue turned into an Anthropologie some years ago, and Anthropologie doesn't sell paper dolls.

Along came laser copiers and the internet. Vintage paper dolls became easier to find, though a laser-copy doesn't evoke the same nostalgia, I recently gave in to one as I was pretty sure this was the first paper doll book I owned, "The Coke Crowd" from 1946.

Coke was literally "it". I don't remember anyone in northern Ohio drinking anything else— not Pepsi, not Dr. Pepper, not ginger ale (unless you were sick). Coke was Coke. The orange or red stuff was "pop". The paper dolls were not sanctioned by Coca-Cola. Who knows if they even granted permission? Four of the eight dolls are holding bottles of coke (with straws). That was actually a little annoying as it meant their hands were permanently raised.

Moonlight serenade

I remember coming home from downtown with "The Coke Crowd" in a flat brown paper bag that perfectly fit its size. I would have been 5 or 6. I still see myself sprawled on the living room carpet, after dinner, cutting. This was as much a Norman Rockwell moment as I remember having. We were all there— my father reading the paper (or falling asleep), my mother sewing at something, my sister playing at doing homework, the radio on. It was a small apartment with a small living room. We were separated by no more than a body length.

I didn't punch out the dolls but carefully cut them from their cardboard placenta. I disdained those dull metal scissors with the rounded edges that were deemed appropriate in school. We had sharp scissors at home. I manicure-scissored the clothes as neatly as I could with no background allowed. For expediency I kept only the top tabs and felt rather naughty lopping off the rest.

Dolled up for the barbecue

Playing with them was secondary to bringing the dolls and their wardrobes to life. I may have dressed them a few times according to the scenarios in the pages— barbecue, school days, prom, the big game, movie date— or mixed and matched the outfits. Mostly they were cut out and set aside. I was always ready for another book.

And this is finally the point. I believe my life in paper dolls set the foundation for my relationship with fashion. It's not just about having clothes to wear, it's about the inspiration, the creativity, the curiosity, the search, the discovery, bagging the trophy... then repeat.

I just laser-copied my laser copy of the Coke Crowd kids. As I cut them out I see my style has really never changed or may be reverting. Below are clothes I would wear today! And who doesn't love a man in a tuxedo?


  1. I,too, loved paper dolls. I had a very nice collection and enjoyed looking at the beautiful outfits. I still look at the books if I see them in the store. I am 72 years---so I remember! ( I had a Betty Hutton book)
    Love your posts.

    1. Thanks for your nice words. We're the same age, and I loved Betty Hutton too!

  2. I made a set of paper dolls--the dolls themselves and the clothes--for my cousin when I was about fourteen. She still has them! Next time I see her I'll ask to see the clothes.

  3. I had some paper dolls as well, as a kid in the late 70's-early 80's... And the "Fashionplate" toy. Remember those? We could put different outfit and texture plates down, then use special rubbing crayons to make our own pictures. Considering that Mom made most of our clothes, it seemed more like my life-- we picked not only the shapes of the clothes, but the fabrics as well!

    1. Sadly I do not remember "Fashionplate" as I am too OLD, but it sounds like something I would have loved. I created my own "textiles" on paper for making paper doll clothes. A spatter-painted tweed was a favorite.