The “Is-ness” of an Antique Doll: A Study of the Tenuousness of Being



Sometimes, I am struck by the notion of how beautiful it is that antique dolls that are more than 100 years old–a part of history before people who are on the planet now–even exist. The fact that they are “Being” in existence in our time is awesome! In my morning inspirational reading today, from the book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O’Donohue, I found this deeply thoughtful passage:

 The most profound statement that can be made about something is that “it is.” Beauty is. The word is is the most magical word. It is a short, inconsequential little word and does not even sound special. Yet the word is is the greatest hymn to the ‘thereness’ of things. We are so thoroughly entangled in the web of the world that we are blind to the unfolding world being there before us. Our sleep of unknowing is often disturbed by suffering. Abruptly we awaken to the devastating realization that the givenness of things is utterly tenuous. Even mountains hang on strings. The ‘isness’ of things is miraculous: that there is something rather than nothing.

Those of us in the Pacific Northwest know intimately how the ‘isness’ of a mountain can altar profoundly, after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980.


This doll dates to 1690 (yes, that is three and a quarter centuries old–quite old for a doll!) and is one of only two glass-eyed dolls known to exist from this period. Though she was purchased by Rosalie Whyel without her original dress, providence, and the corroboration of three parties with separate agendas, worked to reunite her with her original dress.

It is always amazing for me to see in person, and more often in photos, those astounding English wooden dolls from the 1700’s, and some earlier, that are still in existence! I was under the impression that not many household-type things from before, say, the American Revolution were still extant. I had an awakening in this idea after reading Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.; a book about Huguette Clark, her extreme wealth, and her love of dolls and art. I realized through this book that wealthy people do indeed own many remarkable things from many centuries past that are in a state of “Being” in their homes! Previously, I had thought that there were few items of ‘isness’ from as old as the 13th century, and that what is, were in museums.

For those of us who are the keepers of antique dolls, it is an intimate experience when a doll is altered by misfortune. My “sleep of unknowing” about the miracle of ‘isness’ for one of my dolls was disturbed by suffering last week when I discovered the tenuousness of her being. Here’s what happened:

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This is my Taufling baby as she was when I purchased her.

A while back I found a fabulous 1850’s taufling papier mache doll that fit perfectly in an antique doll cradle I have. The cradle lived on the floor under a tall sofa table in my living room. I have two cats who like to play chase through the room. One day I came home and found the doll on the floor. At a glance, she seemed alright, and I placed her back in the cradle. Last week, however, I took her out to photograph her, and found that her shoulder-plate was quite broken! Yes, I was devastated that this thing of beauty entrusted to me was irretrievably altered! I surmised that my heavier cat had probably stepped hard on the doll after knocking her out of the cradle, crushing her.


I did the best I could to repair this doll, and she retains an ethereal beauty, serene in her antique gown, snug in her cradle, which is now moved to a less trafficked area in the apartment. But she will never retain the near-perfection that she had before her mishap.


Here is the doll after I repaired her shoulder-plate with white glue and strips of paper behind the cracks. The back of her shoulder-plate has a horizontal break, which is most likely where the pressure of the cat’s paw landed. I did not think to photograph her before the repairs because I was so devastated by the damage.

You may remember that I wrote briefly on this type of German doll, made in the Sonneberg region, when I wrote about the history of dolls in Japan.

Commodore Perry Dolls brought from Japan in 1852

These are the Japanese dolls that Commodore Perry brought from Japan in 1853.

The three-fold (mitsuori) dolls that Commodore Perry brought back from Japan in 1853 had a profound influence on doll-making in Germany. The ability of German doll makers to examine this type of Japanese doll, and the ichimatsu dolls with cloth connecting the solid parts, resulted in the taufling, or Motschmann, type doll. These early German dolls retained the Japanese features of almond shaped dark eyes and painted-on hair tufts above the ears, of the dolls that influenced them.


This 22 1/2″ taufling has a wax over papier mache shoulder head. He is redressed in antique baby clothing, and currently sports a tuft of alpaca wool for shaggy bangs.

The taufling dolls come in many sizes. The one that fits in my cradle is 12″. This one, shown above, is 22 1/2″ tall. He has the same body type as the smaller doll, with papier mache parts connected with linen fabric, and his hands and feet are “floating,” moving freely.

Baby 9 inch Motschmann doll

This small 9″ taufling is made in the same way as the larger dolls. He (I often think of these dolls as male) has painted hair tufts above his ears that are mostly worn off.


Anyone (most all of us) who has lost a loved-one, whether human or animal, knows the devastation of the loss of “Being” of the loved one in the physical world. Though cats and antique dolls don’t always get along, I am grateful for the “isness” of both in my world.


Sasha, my 20 pound tripod cat, believes that what is mine belongs to her. Having only one fore-leg, she has developed strong hind legs, to the detriment of one of my dolls. I still love her.


Dedman, Bill and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune. Ballantine Books, New York, 2013.

O’Donohue, John, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. Harper Perennial, New York, 2004.




The Era of Isobel’s Dolls

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Some of the Antique Doll Study Club members and dolls presenting for Smithsonian Museum Day at the Zimmerman House

The doll club to which I belong, The Antique Doll Study Club of Oregon, presents some extraordinary programs and displays for the public, thanks to our innovative and creative members.  This Saturday past, for Smithsonian Museum Day, we presented a display of antique dolls representing a particular era in the Zimmerman House in Gresham, Oregon.

The Historic Zimmerman House was built in 1874 and was home to three generations of the Zimmerman Family.  Their furnishings and personal articles remain in this two-story Victorian home, with nine rooms open to the public.”


Four daughters, in elegant Edwardian attire;  the last generation to live in the Zimmerman house.  Isobel is pictured bottom right.

The third and last generation to occupy the house consisted of four daughters: Jessie, Olive, Mabel, and the youngest, Isobel. Isobel was born in 1899 and lived in the house until the end of her life in 1992.

Isobel Zimmerman as a child

Isobel as a child

Amazingly, the Zimmerman House still holds the contents of three generations who lived there, and the rooms display life in the early twentieth century.


The front door, open to invite guests this day.  The front parlor, where we displayed our period dolls, is to the right in this photo.


At the top of the stairs is a landing where the children played.  Isobel’s and her sisters’ toys are still there.  Since cousins, nieces, and nephews came to visit, this was a play place for boys, as well as girls.


A child sized dresser displays more toys of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century belonging to Zimmerman children.


A Zimmerman cradle with more family dolls and toys

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Here are the bisque dolls that Isobel played with as a child.


An upstairs bedroom displays two doll trunks in superb condition.  A third trunk is near the dolls in another bedroom, still filled with Isobel’s doll clothing.

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A dreamy view of the bright front bedroom.  In good weather, the Zimmerman children would go out onto the veranda from this bedroom, above the porch, to play.


The front parlor where we displayed our period dolls


One corner of the parlor is presided over by this elegant piano.

The era of Isobel’s childhood was 1899 to about 1913.  This is the period we chose for our presentation of dolls.  The dolls we displayed represented those that would have been available in stores and catalogs during the time of Isobel’s childhood.

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The main table with our presentation dolls

The Antique Doll Study Club of Oregon, presenting this display, has been a member of the United Federation of Doll Clubs for 45 years.  Many collectors of antique dolls consider their dolls to be representatives of the history, art, and science of the past.  Innovations were in progress during this time period which influenced materials and construction methods for toys and dolls.  The dolls of Isobel’s childhood era were made of cloth, wood, papier mache, bisque, china, wax, early composition, celluloid, and metal.


Our second, smaller table of dolls


These two dolls are made of an experimental material–Celluloid, an early type of plastic.

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Wax dolls continued to be available in this era.  Wax, reinforced with resin, was poured directly into a mold, or a head made of another material, such as papier mache, was dipped in wax to give it a more lifelike complexion.


Composition was a popular material for doll heads of this time.

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China dolls, though waning in popularity, continued to be manufactured to good advantage.  Fiona and Dorothy, holding the doll house twins, Pink and Blue, were proud to represent this category in the first decade of the twentieth century.

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The bisque dolls of this era were well represented, as it was the height of their popularity.  (Isobel’s own two bisque dolls, shown in a photo above, seem well-loved, as evidenced by their trunk full of clothing.)  Represented here are many German bisque dolls, with a few originating from France.  The Dolly Face is evident, as well as Character dolls and babies.  Some of the smaller dolls in front are all-bisque, while larger dolls have bodies made of other materials such as composition, stuffed leather, and stuffed cloth.

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Cloth dolls were also seeing innovations during this time, most notably with lithograth printing.  The tall girl in back is an Art Fabric Mills doll, purchased as a sheet of printed fabric, then cut out, sewn, stuffed, and dressed at home.  The Topsy Turvy doll, front right, was made by Bruckner for Horsman circa 1909, with lithographed and pressed heads.  Center, in the blue dress, is a Martha Chase doll with an oil paint covered cloth head.


Dolls made of wood continued to be available.  An American toy company, Schoenhut, had just begun to add dolls to their line in 1911. The bonnet girl in the red dress is a fine example of their early dolls.


Papier mache is another material used in doll making for decades that continued to be available during this time.


Dolls with metal heads were made during the Edwardian period.  These examples show painted, as well as inserted, eyes. One doll has a wig, while the rest have molded hair.

We Ladies of the Antique Doll Study Club of Oregon were delighted to visit with Isobel Zimmerman in her Edwardian era for Smithsonian Museum Day on September 21st, 2019.


Karen Humbert,  Maria Vaughan,  Polly Bingham,  Jennifer Stewart,  Pat Sharp


Kathy Moore,  Karen Humbert,  Jennifer Stewart,  Maria Vaughan

Even though, like Isobel, we grow up, we continue to value our dolls for the history, art, and science that they represent, and the joy they bring to us.

Isobel Zimmerman young Edwardian dress

Isobel Zimmerman as she may have appeared to receive us in her home.






Stella Julianna and the New Autumn Jumper


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I like living here with Mama.  I wonder what I will get to do next.

Stella Julianna glanced up from reading her book, Heather Bells.  She was contemplating her cozy life since she came to live with her Mama, Miss Jennie.  Many days, she played and daydreamed by herself.  She had toys and books just her size, and she loved snuggling and pretending with the soft animals, especially her giraffe and the very soft lamb.  She also liked listening to stories from the antique dolls.  Miss Ruby always had a tale about her adventures in New England last summer, and the older dolls reverently told about long-ago times when they lived with little girls who were all grown up and gone away now.


I was SO excited to go on this special doll outing with Mama!

Then there were the special times with Mama!  Julianna knew that she wouldn’t catch a wink of sleep the night before the Portland Doll and Teddy Bear Show in January!  She just knew there would be lots of things for her to look at there.  When the day came, she had ever so much fun!  She was admired by many people there, and even tried on a dress to help the mama of another Stella who hadn’t come to the show.  With Mama’s help, she found a sweet felt dolly for herself, hats, and oh, so many dresses!


My felt dolly is just the right vintage for me!  (1930’s)  And looky my new clothes and hats!  A polka dot party dress, a shamrock dress, a summer dress, a flannel nightgown, and even fancy dresses!

When she came home, Stella Julianna dreamed of lavender scented summer breezes when she could wear her new “Patsy” dress from the 1930’s, and play with the ducklings as they waddled over the lawn from their nearby pond.


Will everyone think I’m a china lady too?

While the weather was cold and rainy, Stella Julianna played fancy dress with her growing wardrobe.


Mama brought me this one from Hawaii before I came to live here.  She must think I’m Miss Coconut Queen.  But I’m really a mermaid!



This dress is much more comfortable.  All it needs is a blue ribbon belt.  (Hear that Mama?) Now, what to do–work or play?  Oh!  I know!  Laundry can wait for nice weather.  I’m playing Noah’s Ark!

Springtime came before she could say “Spring Freshet on Plum Creek,” and Julianna was wearing her pretty floral “Patsy” dress, admiring the Bleeding Hearts.


Going barefoot is the best!–and my lamb really IS the softest of all.

All summer long, Stella Julianna played and daydreamed.  She hoped that she would get to travel soon, like Miss Ruby did.  Mama told her that maybe when the next winter was over, a trip would present itself.  Then, the days began to shorten, and the nights became deliciously cool for blankets on the bed again.  Mama told Julianna it was time to make her a new Autumn dress.



Mama thought I would pick the blue flowers on the feedsack fabric, but I surprised her!  I want the green with bright bits fabric!  The purple flowers fabric behind me is the Gibson Girl blouse Mama is making for herself, but she stopped on it to make my new dress for Autumn.


The first thing was to sew new stockings.  I got two new pair–red for the Autumn Jumper, and blue stripes for another time.  Which do you like best?


My small clothes are all finished.  Thank you Holly Hobbie for sharing your pattern–only a few alterations were needed.  Next comes the fun part–the jumper! 


Isn’t it just splendid!  Even a beret with an antique green thistle button!


The back of me shows my matching hair bow.  Of course you know, every Stella dress needs a hair bow.

Now that Stella Julianna had a warm and comfortable jumper for autumn, she could settle into the cozy indoors for her lessons.


Mama thinks I can learn better at home, and I’m glad because I like it here best of all.  I will study reading, writing, arithmetic, science, geography, history, cultures, ecology, art, music, poetry, spirituality, and handicrafts . . .  Oh, so many things to learn about! I like best when I can curl up with a cup of cambric tea and my favorite Laura Ingalls or Beatrix Potter book.

Julianna was glad to have so many things to learn about, and a new jumper to wear while learning.  She hoped that there would be new discoveries, and maybe even travels, to tell about soon.

Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls, Part 4

B 33 Vintage boy ichimatsu

Dolls for Entertainment and Play

While all of the ningyo are invaluable to collectors of Asian art, it is the play dolls that are most endearing to doll enthusiasts. “Huggable” dolls, made for and played with by children, carry that undeniable charm of a childhood from long ago, or one in progress right now.

B 34 Bunraku Japanese traditional performing arts

Bunraku theater puppets. Note black hooded puppeteers who do not show up on the stage during a performance.

Bunraku-ningyo or Theatrical Dolls for Puppet Theater: Although there are several types of puppet or theater dolls in Japan, Bunraku puppets are perhaps the most complex and layered, and are considered as one of the most sophisticated doll forms in the world. The puppets are themselves of simple construction with loosely attached limbs for great mobility, and detachable heads for interchangeability. Their depth and mystery comes from how they are transformed on stage. Puppeteers wear all black with hoods to manipulate the puppets on stage, sometimes with as many as three operators per puppet. They transform the inert doll magically in great dramas of emotion, power, pathos, agony, heroism, and loss. To quote Alan Scott Pate once more, “Such is their extraordinary sense of vivacity onstage, that to see them on their stands, inert, after a performance it is difficult to believe that they are actually inanimate.”

B 35 Karakuri Japanese mechanical doll

Karakuri Mechanical Doll with western clockwork mechanism

Karakuri-ningyo or Mechanical Dolls:  Just as with the European automaton, there are dolls in Japan that can move by means of strings, hand cranks, and knobs, for home entertainment. Some are simple, such as a karakuri gosho figure who lifts his arms to don a mask. Some are more complicated tableaux. Many of these are divided into four categories: musicians, transformations, animal scenes, and performers. The facades of the bases depict longevity motifs such as cranes, turtles, bamboo, and pine.

Karakuri ningyo showing base with motifs

Karakuri ningyo with music box mechanism, showing base with motifs


B 36 Keue saiko Ningyo with wigs

Keue Saiku doll with many wigs

Keue Saiku: Almost all of the keue saiku depict animals, so could be classified as gangu, or toys, rather than ningyo. However, the interchangeable wig doll falls within this category. The figures portray at once a sense of whimsy and profound realism. “Saiku” means fine workmanship, and “keue” means thread planting, indicating the creation of these toys involved fine crafting by individually inserting silk threads in the figures.

B 37 Mitsuori kneeling woman

Mitsuore-ningyo illustrating the way in which the doll can fold its legs to kneel in the Japanese style.

Mitsuore-ningyo or Three Fold Dolls: Mitsuore, as well as ichimatsu, are also called daki-ningyo or huggable dolls, and are meant to be held and dressed. This is a style of doll that is more familiar to gaijin, or foreigners. This doll, introduced in the late 18th century, was an expensive toy doll with a technically complicated structure. It is pliable with cloth upper arms, easily dressed for a change of clothing. Because of the hollowed out backs of the thighs, this doll can stand, sit, or kneel.

B 38 Three Geiko with a Doll 1938

Three Geiko (higher-level apprentice Geisha) with a Doll 1938

As well as being play dolls for children, the daki-ningyo were also popular with geisha (“arts person”) and maiko, (“dancing child” or apprentice geisha). This is evidenced by images in woodblock prints and photographs in the mid-Edo through Showa periods. This type of photo became a populay souvenir for tourists after Japan was opened in 1853.

B 39 Japanese Boy Ichimatsu with Haori Better Quality 1

Ichimatsu Boy from author’s collection. His hair is painted on.

Ichimatsu-ningyo: While still holding artistic appeal, these are truly huggable play dolls depicting children of about six or seven years of age with their bendable fabric portioned limbs, and often a squeaker in their mid-sections.

B 40 Mitsuori Ningyo Boy Edo Period 2

Mitsuori Ningyo Boy, Edo Period. Of note is the shaved hairstyle of the period with longer hair in front of the ears.

Most early ichimatsu, before the Friendship Dolls of 1927, depicted boys. These dolls are individually artist made from molded parts covered with gofun, with some being more artistically rendered than others. A paper bearing the artist’s signature wraps the torso before the doll is dressed.


Ichimatsu from the author’s collection. Note the two babies in the front of the photo.

Ichimatsu depicting younger babies and miniature play doll families are also made as children’s toys.

C A 28 dollhouse size play ichimatsue dolls

These miniature dollhouse sized ningyo are from the author’s collection. The okaasan and otosan are 4″ tall. They come in a little basket with a lid.

B 44 Miss Tottori 1927 send-off party

Miss Tottori: Photo from the 1927 send-off party (Sending from Japan to USA)

Torei-ningyo, Friendship or Ambassador Dolls: The most famous of the ichimatsu-ningyo are the Friendship Dolls who were sent to America in 1927 after 12,739 department store variety “Blue-eyed” dolls were sent to Japan the previous year as an overture of goodwill following discrimination of Japanese citizens in the United States.

B 42 Japanese girls with blue eyed dolls

Japanese girls holding blue eyed dolls sent to Japan in 1926 from American children

Whole volumes have been written about these dolls and their experience as they have come back into the public awareness since the 1980’s.

B 43 Miss Wakayama by Hirata Goyo II

Miss Wakayama by Hirata Goyo II

They are each 32″ tall, dressed in exquisite furisode (long sleeved formal kimono), and were accompanied with stands, accoutrements, accessories, a passport, and a ship ticket.

B 45 Miss Fukuoka Full Dogu

Miss Fukuoka/Gunma Full Dogu

These highly artistically rendered dolls are the starting point of the Japanese Art Doll Movement. 45 of the original 58 dolls are now accounted for, though they are not all identified correctly, as their stands and accessories were mixed up in their early touring of the United States. Miss Fukuoka/Gunma resides at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon. Please click on the link below in “For More Information” to experience Alan Scott Pate’s 2014 lecture (69 minutes) on the Japanese Friendship Dolls at the Schnitzer Museum

B 46 BJD female

BJD girl

BJD Dolls: No overview of Japanese dolls can be complete without a mention of the wildly popular among young people today, BJD (ball jointed dolls).

B 47 BJD male nude

BJD nude male

The Volks company is one of the outstanding creators of these highly detailed dolls, often with the popular Japanese “anime” look.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

Ningyo of Japan serve significant cultural roles as ritual, guardian, and votive objects, as art for admiration, and as entertainment and toys for adults and children. Though dolls of Japan have been collectible as art in the west since the late 19th century, collectors of antique dolls are just beginning to discover the beautiful, “kawaii” ningyo. Kirei desu ne!

B 48 Dreamland by Charles Deter Weldon

Dreamland by Charles Deter Weldon circa 1883


For More Information:

Kaonis, Donna. “A Visit with the Herrings.” (Japanese Dolls) Antique Doll Collector, October 2015.

Kita, Terry. The Sun Shines For Us All: The Friendship Dolls From Japan. Valparaiso, IN: Valparaiso University, 2015.

Pate, Alan Scott. “Good, Better, Best: Evaluating Japanese Ichimatsu Dolls.” Antique Doll Collector, March 2017.

Pate, Alan Scott. “Courtesans and Heroines: Japanese Fashion Dolls from the 18th Century.” Doll News, Summer 2019.

Pate, Alan Scott. Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2008.

Pate, Alan Scott. Lecture: Japanese Friendship Dolls. Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, February 4, 2014.

Pate, Alan Scott. Ningyo: The Art of the Japanese Doll. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2005.

Stern, Itsuke and Anthony. “Wonderful Japanese Kokeshi Dolls.” Doll News, Winter 2015.

Stewart, Jennifer Anne. “Beyond Oceans and Decades: In Search of Ningyo.” Blog Post:

Make Japanese paper dolls:

Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls, Part 3


Author’s Kimekome ningyo, made on Okinawa in 1986 with the help of my Sensei

Display Dolls

To quote Alan Scott Pate, “In many countries dolls are closely associated with children and playtime.  In contrast, a significant part of Japan’s doll culture involves dolls made specifically for adults and designed for display rather than for play.”

B 22 Saga Ningyo mother with child side view 18th c.

Saga Ningyo mother with child side view 18th century. (Image from

Saga-ningyo, the most refined aesthetics of Edo ningyo: Saga-ningyo are the rarest and most sought after antique dolls in Japan, rarely represented in foreign collections.  The base is carved wood with the head, and often the hands, formed separately. Clothing is formed with a sophisticated technique of applying lacquered colors.

B 22 X Antique large Doji Ningyo, Photo credit Alan Pate

Antique large Doji Ningyo (Image from

Many styles of Saga-ningyo were created; however, the most sought after are the “doji” style of a kneeling boy acolyte often holding an animal such as a dog or a bird.


Gosho-ningyo (Palace Dolls), A Celebration of Youth: Gosho-ningyo are closely associated with the imperial culture of the 18th century. They were gifts that conveyed auspicious wishes within the imperial family, and to visitors in recognition of tributes to the emperor.

B 23 Japanese Kofuku-no-inori gosho ningyo c. 1820 Edo

Japanese Kofuku-no-inori gosho ningyo c. 1820 Edo

The Gosho dolls are noted for representing rotund boy children, often wearing a haragake bib, and often in parody of popular culture. Their format of one-third proportions and white spherical elements echoes Buddhist ideals. Gosho-ningyo are made of clay or wood or composition covered with gofun (oyster-shell paste).


B 25 Iki Ningyo fisherman attacked by kappa water demon

Iki Ningyo: Fisherman attacked by kappa water demon

Iki-ningyo:  Literally “living dolls.” In the Edo era they were used by various traveling performers and at temple fairs. Their realism and the content of the display were often violent and shocking.

B 26 Isho ningyo modern depicting early 20th c. by Yuki Atae

Isho ningyo: Modern, depicting early 20th c. by Yuki Atae

Or, in modern examples, they may portray common life of an earlier time.


B 27 Kimekome ningyo

Kimekome doll showing the paolownia base, and the completed doll

Kimekome: This is a traditional method for crafting dolls starting with a base carved of Paolownia wood. The garments are made by gluing padded fabric to the base and tucking it into the seams cut in the wood. Hina and Musha ningyo can be made of Kimekome, and kits are available for crafters to complete.


Kimekome doll completed by the author on Okinawa, 1985.


B 28 Isho ningyo two geisha musicians pre 1900

Isho ningyo: Two geisha musicians, pre 1900

Isho-ningyo: Fashion Dolls and Popular Culture of the Edo period. “Isho” means fashion or clothing. Usually standing, these dolls are mounted on a lacquered base. They depict every imaginable topic from kimono fashion, to hit plays on the Kabuki stage, Seven Gods of Good Fortune, and they overlap with musha ningyo, warriors from the past (as seen in Part 1 of Ningyo).

B 29 Traveler to Kyoto Costume Doll Circa Edo Period

Traveler to Kyoto Costume Doll, Circa Edo Period

Textiles are the main focus for isho-ningyo, and Japan’s weaving technology in silk brocades, silk and cotton velvets, gauze, hemp, and satin, can be found in the costumes of these dolls. Alan Pate’s latest article in Doll News, Summer 2019, focuses on this doll form. He aptly notes, “[Isho-ningyo] represent a uniquely Japanese form of doll–one infused with all the beauty and mastery of refined doll art, but additionally layered in history, lore and social values. They are fabulous windows to a long-ago world, but one that comes to life again when one gazes at the lustrous white gofun faces, admires the rich silken brocades, and ponders reflectively the stories they tell.”


B 30 Kokeshi


Kokeshi Cylindrical Wooden Dolls, or “Poppy-seed Child”:  These primitive style lathe turned wooden dolls originated in the cold north of Japan in the hot-springs area of Tohoku, and were made as souvenirs. They could also be used as offerings to gods, possibly depicting children who have died.


Author’s kokeshi with okappa hairstyle in the made-for-tourist tradition. Purchased in Japan c. 1989.

Kokeshi are a popular souvenir for tourists to Japan, with the export dolls often having an added okappa hairstyle.


Author’s toy kokeshi,  purchased second-hand in Tokyo, c. 1989

B 31 Kamo Ningyo trio mid 1800's

Kamo Ningyo trio mid 1800’s

Kamo-ningyo: Most likely originating in the mid-18th century, these are small (about 3″) wooden dolls inspired by the daily life in Kyoto. They have applied textiles and minimalist facial features. While little known to the outside world, they are one of the most collected of early dolls in Japan.


B 32 Hakata

Hakata-ningyo:  These are clay figures which blur the lines between doll and sculpture. Known for depicting elegant women, they are made exclusively on the southern island of Kyushu and centered in the town of Fukuoka, where the clay is easily available.

A 6 1985 2 July 14 Fukuoka Japan Hakata doll factory

Hakata-ningyo at the factory in Fukuoka, awaiting display in the showroom.  Note the unpainted male figures in the left background.  Photo by author, 1985

A 5 Hakata Factory brochure inside

Brochure from the Hakata Factory in Fukuoka Japan, 1985.  Again, male figures dominate.

Part 4 of Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls will continue with Dolls for Entertainment and Play, and with the Bibliography and For More Information.




Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls, Part 2

Antique 1900 photo Japanese boy and girl with Hina Matsuri display and Ichimasho doll

Notice the ichimatsu dolls on the right side by the boy in this circa 1900 photograph.

Ritual, Guardian, and Festival Ningyo

Hina-ningyo for Hina Matsuri (Girl’s Day or Peach Blossom Festival): Hina-ningyo, depicting the imperial court, are probably the best known to Westerners of all Japanese dolls. Hina Matsuri, celebrated on March 3rd, had its origin in the Heian Period (794-1192). It is a traditional custom to display ceremonial dolls on tiers of shelves covered with scarlet carpet. This is an auspicious day for purification, and parents celebrate their daughters’ happiness, growth, and good health.


Dairi-bina (Imperial Couple) and Court Ladies from author’s Hina Matsuri Display. The Imperial Couple are about 3 1/2″ tall.

In the years 1000-1600, there is intermittent evidence that paper dolls were made to play with or to give as gifts on the third day of the third month, the festival associated with nagashi-bina purification rituals.

By the 17th century, the dolls were probably being made professionally using rich cloth instead of paper, with complex heads, but by the end of that century, commoners also made the dolls so that their daughters could celebrate the third day of the third month with doll play.


Author’s Hinakazari (Hina Matsuri Display), purchased, already vintage, in Japan in 1989 and recently brought home from Connecticut to Oregon City.

Modern families often buy a new dairi-bina, or “imperial couple,” pair when the first daughter is born, adding to the display each year, while others pass down hinakazari (Hina display sets) from one generation to the next. In the past, it was common for new brides to take their set with them when they married. Many old  hinakazari still remain and hold importance to broader society as cultural treasures.

B 10 Tachi-bina pair Kyoto National Museum

Tachi-bina pair Kyoto National Museum

Tachi-bina (Standing Hina for Hina Matsuri): Tachi-bina can be made of paper at home. They are considered to be the earliest form of the dairi-bina displayed on Hina Matsuri. They represent a man (large, with outstretched protective arms) and a woman (smaller, armless), and are thought to echo the contrasting shapes of the amagatsu and hoko doll (shown below).  When made of paper or inexpensive materials, these ningyo are appropriate for the nagashi-bina purification ceremony, (also below) which is the ancestor of Hina Matsuri, in which dolls are touched or rubbed to absorb one’s sins, and then thrown into a river.  A single doll, used as a kind of proxy for the person being purified, is used for this ceremony in the Tale of Genji, (10th century classic Japanese literature) but modern nagashi-bina usually use pairs of dolls.

B 11 Hoko and Amagatsu pair

Hoko and Amagatsu pair

Hoko and Amagatsu (Talismanic forms to protect infants): The use of katashiro, or substitutes, in spiritual practice as stand-ins to take on the brunt of a person’s sins or misfortune played a role in the creation of hoko or crawling baby dolls. This is a guardian doll type, made by sewing a rectangle of cloth in such a way as to form four limbs, all of which point in the same direction. Hoko dolls have round stuffed heads, sometimes with long hair attached. They were traditionally given to pregnant women to protect the mother and unborn child. The dolls could be made for both boys and girls and were given to babies either at birth, or on special days shortly after birth. Boys’ dolls would be given up and “consecrated” at a shrine when boys turned fifteen, while girls would give up their dolls at marriage. Traditionally, hoko dolls were made of silk and human hair, and stuffed with cotton. Tiny hoko dolls remain a popular craft.

Amagatsu, or Heavenly Child doll, is mentioned in the Tale of Genji as a guardian doll for newborns, kept at all times with the child. The reference is thought to be to a cross-shaped figure, made by fixing wooden or bamboo rods in a T-shape to form a body and arms, with a cloth-covered head attached. The doll functioned as a kind of twin to the child, meant to distract evil spirits (meaning diseases) from its living counterpart. It would be burned when the child came of age.

B 12 Nagashi Bina

Nagashi Bina

Nagashi-bina is an event that involves dispelling impurities and misfortunes by floating dolls away on water. In earlier days this rite took place all over Japan, but the practice has died out in most areas. Only in Tottori City and Mochigase-cho in Tottori Prefecture does nagashi-bina survive today.

B 13 Nagashi-bina Festival in Mochigase-cho

Nagashi-bina Festival in Mochigase-cho

In this rite, dry straw is woven into a boat, which carries a pair of male and female dolls to be cast adrift in the river.

B 14 Koinobori Japanese Carp Wind Banner

Koi nobori

Musha-ningyo for Gogatsu no sekku or Tango no sekku, Boys’ Day: Boys’ Day (the fifth day of the fifth month) has a more complicated status than Hina Matsuri and does not require a doll display. The most important festive item is a banner or windsock in the shape of a carp (koi nobori), which is flown from a pole near the home; one fish is raised for each boy child. The carp is equated with virility because of the strength with which it swims upstream.

B 15 Musha-ningyo Warrior Dolls

Musha-ningyo Warrior Dolls

However, there are many dolls available to displayed on this day: Soldiers and great generals, legendary rulers, spiritual guides, and boy heroes with outrageous activities.

B 17 Daruma one eye painted

Daruma with one eye painted

Daruma dolls represent the Buddhist saint Daruma or Bodhidharma, who according to legend brought Zen enlightenment, and tea, to China and Japan. Legend has it that Daruma sat for years meditating, during which time his arms and legs atrophied, as well as his eyelids.

B 18 Daruma Vintage Gold-White Doll Japan

Daruma, Vintage Gold-White Doll, Japan

These Japanese dolls are paper-maché roly-polys which one buys with blank eyes so as to paint them in as one accomplishes some task (the first eye when one has formulated the goal, the second eye when it is achieved).

B 19 Daruma Burning

Daruma burning

Afterwards, Daruma are typically burned in a special ceremony. This custom may have originated as a thank-offering to the god for good Spring and Fall harvests; if he did not send a good harvest, he would remain blind or one-eyed. These dolls still perform a significant cultural function, and are purchased particularly at New Year’s, to assist in making resolutions.

B 20 Hagoita


Hagoita is not really a doll, but the padded images on it belong to the construction method of oshie-ningyo, or “padded-painting dolls.” Hagoita, like Daruma, are associated with the New Year. They are richly decorated game paddles, traditionally given as new year’s gifts to girls. The  game of hanetsuki is played with a feathered  large seed for a shuttlecock and a pair of hagoita. One side is painted, but the other side of the paddle is usually decorated with elaborate padded cloth faces of geisha or kabuki actors. As with Daruma, the old year’s paddles are supposed to be burned at the end of the year.

B 21 Okiagari Koboshi Pair

Okiagari Koboshi

Okiagari Koboshi can be translated as “priest who gets back up.” They are considered a lucky symbol of resilience. Traditional Japanese roly-poly toys date back as far as the14th century.

. . .

In Part 3 of this presentation on ningyo, Dolls for Display will be on focus.

Antique photo A Maiko with Hina Matsuri Dolls 1890s (2)

A Maiko (apprentice geisha) with large Hina Matsuri Dolls, 1890’s





Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls, Part 1

Japanese girl in kimono with Ichimatsu ningyo 1920

It is no wonder that Japan and its culture appear mysterious and exotic to Americans.  For over 220 years, the foreign policy of the Tokugawa Shogunate (the last feudal military government) barred nearly all foreigners from entering Japan, and the common people of Japan were barred from leaving the country. In 1853, American ships commanded by Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japan to American and Western trade.

Commodore Perry Dolls brought from Japan in 1852

Japanese dolls (three fold or Mitsuori) given as gifts to Commodore Perry in Japan, 1853

From the first trade negotiations, Perry brought back a pair of Japanese mitsuori dolls. However, a Japanese play doll had already made its way to Germany, perhaps by a Dutch trader in 1851, resulting in the German style of doll known as Motschmann or Taufling.

German Taufling papier mache circa 1851

German papier mache taufling, circa 1851

Japanese dolls, or Ningyo, have influenced western dolls since at least 1851, and perhaps earlier, as the thread doll form (keue saiku) were among the first ningyo introduced in the US in 1799 by American ships from Salem Massachusetts contracted to fulfill Dutch treaty obligations during the French Revolution period.

Thomas Nast Santa Claus with taufling-ichimatsu

Thomas Nast (German-born American) Santa Claus with taufling/ichimatsu doll.  Printed in  Harper’s Weekly 1881

Ningyo have fascinated Victorian Europe, and have continued to be mesmerizing souvenirs in America since more frequent contact with Japan after WWII. In order to understand the place of ningyo within Japanese culture, however, it is necessary to understand more about the culture of Japan.


Shinto is the native religion of Japan, though Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity are widely practiced there now, as well. Shinto involves nature worship, meaning that natural phenomenon such as sun, wind, trees, mountains, and water are considered as divinities. Torii, the traditional Japanese gates, are so popular in Japan’s culture that they have come to be known in the western part of the world as one of the characterizing features of Japan. The Torii is a gateway that signals the transition from the profane to the sacred, and is usually located at the entrance to Shinto, as well as to Buddhist, shrines, though it is also used to mark an area believed to have a deep spiritual meaning.

Tanabata Star Festival

Tanabata Star Festival

There are five sacred or holy days in the Shinto tradition. These auspicious days are January 1 (New Year), March 3 (Hina Matsuri or Girl’s Day), May 5 (Tango no Sekku or Boy’s Day), July 7 (Tanabata or Star Festival), and September 9 (Choyo or Chrysanthemum Festival).

Shinto is also animistic, meaning to see life in what we consider to be lifeless things. Dolls, therefore, have a deeply ritualistic meaning in Japan because of their ability to be surrogate human beings. “Ningyo” means human form, while “doll” is typically defined as a small human figure used as a child’s toy.


Dogu    The earliest recognizable dolls in Japan are prehistoric clay dogu figures, as old as 12000 BCE.

As ritual objects, ningyo are used as spirit vessels and votives for deities, as references to a particular person, child, infant, or unborn child, and can confuse malevolent forces, thus protecting children from danger and disease. Because of their sacred nature, ningyo are not merely disposed of; rather, they are given funerals at the end of their function with ceremonies concluding with burning the dolls or floating them away on water. (as we shall see . . .)

Just as western dolls are categorized in time periods usually corresponding to British ruling monarchs, ningyo are dated by Japanese imperial periods. In regard to antique ningyo, we are most concerned with Edo period through Showa period.

Periods of Japanese History

*  Early Japan (until 710)                                            *  Edo Period (1603-1868)

*  Nara and Heian Periods (710-1192)                      *  Meiji Period (1868-1912)

*  Kamakura Period (1192-1333)                                *  Taisho Period (1912-1926)

*  Muromachi Period (1338-1573)                              *  Showa Period (1926-1989)

*  Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603)                *  Heisei Period (1989-present)

Categories of Ningyo

Japanese dolls can be categorized by the materials they are made from, such as cloth, wood, clay, or paper. However, it is much more enlightening to get to know ningyo within their place and purpose in Japanese culture. Therefore, we shall explore the dolls as Ritual, Guardian, and Festival Ningyo; Display or Appreciation Ningyo; and Play and Entertainment Ningyo, though these categories are also not clear cut. For example, the Ambassador or Friendship dolls are ichimatsu ningyo; however, they are obviously not play dolls. Rather, they carry a significant ritual purpose as ambassadors of goodwill, and they are intended for display. Likewise, kokeshi originated as souvenir dolls for display, yet they also have ritual significance, and some kokeshi seem intended as play dolls, as we see with the mini wobble headed dolls from my collection.


Author’s collection of miniature play kokeshi ningyo. The tallest doll is 4″.

In the next post, Part 2 of Ningyo: An Overview of Japanese Dolls, we will explore the first category listed above–Ritual, Guardian, and Festival Ningyo. (Bibliography will be listed at the end of Part 4.)