Most of the first settlers who came to the west coast of America arrived in covered wagons, beginning in the 1840’s. By 1871, railroads were open to California and Oregon, and migrants could travel more easily by rail than by wagon. The wagons left indelible marks in our imaginations, on the landscape, on the endurance and stamina of the migrants, and as a legacy. Part of that legacy was widespread negative repercussions for our country’s indigenous populations. One legacy that poignantly remains in a more positive light is the china doll with the hairstyle referred to as Covered Wagon.
The German factories that made the china dolls with molded hair, that we collectors adore as antiques today, did not give the dolls or their hairstyles names. Rather, it was the early collectors, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who attached descriptive names to the different styles of dolls in order to have a working vocabulary when referring to them with other collectors or historians. The Covered Wagon doll was so named because the simple hairstyle of the doll was one that became popular in the 1850’s as one easy to maintain while travelling by wagon.
The advent of china doll shoulder heads for the open market was the mid 1840’s. The earliest china dolls had bun hairstyles modeled after current fashions including hair looped around the ears such as Queen Victoria’s wedding style, and spaniel ears which featured sausage curls over the ears and a bun in back. Starting about 1845, the “Lydia” hairstyle with center parted smooth hair on top and long sausage curl ringlets all around and dropping in length over the shoulders, was common for china dolls. Another similar style of about the same time is known as “Sophia Smith.” This style is like “Lydia,” except the ringlet curls are shorter at neck level, and end in an undercut ledge. The Lydia and Sophia Smith styles, as some of the oldest and rare china dolls, are scarce, expensive, and sought after by serious collectors.
The first of the “plain and plentiful” china dolls was the Covered Wagon hairstyle that made its appearance in the early 1850’s. (The other styles referred to as “plain and plentiful” are the “flat top” and the “low brow” which come along later in the 19th century.) The Covered Wagon style is similar to Sophia Smith with center parted smooth hair on top and short curls around the head. The main difference is that the covered wagon curls conform to the shape of the head, tapering at the bottom, rather than having a distinct ledge as for the Sophia Smith. It appears that most of the Covered Wagon china dolls were made by Kestner & Co. and A.W.Fr Kister, while Kloster Veilsdorf made their unique variation with exposed ears known as “Greiner type.”
Covered wagon china dolls are some of the oldest antique dolls that are still readily available to collectors, often at a reasonable price. A fair number of them can be found with the rarer brown eyes. They carry that quintessential primitive charm, evoking the stamina, endurance, and spirit of those American pioneer women who braved the adventure of crossing this wide continent to its westernmost regions to forge a new home.
(All dolls shown are from the author’s collection unless otherwise noted.)