Dolls and Play Time in the Little Houses

Laura Ingals Wilder full photo at seventeen

Laura at age 17

I fell in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 19th century world of the “Little House” books when I first found On the Banks of Plum Creek (yes, I read this one first) at my grade school library in the 1960’s. Much of Laura’s reality, almost a century before my own, is the substance of my longing. I am not sure if I love Laura’s books because they bring to life the past that I crave, or if I yearn for this time in history because Laura shares her pioneer life with us so beautifully in her children’s books, which were crafted so artistically with the assistance of her professional writer daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.

Laura’s attention to the dolls, toys, and playtime in her remembrances is especially vivid. Though she did not have many possessions herself, she describes the realms of play of herself and her sister Mary, of her husband, Almanzo, when he was a child, of her more affluent peers and friends, and of her younger sisters as her family moved to other locations and better circumstances. Through Pa’s stories, we even get peripheral glances at his childhood play in the woods of Illinois, and that of his father as a child. The purpose of play as learning experiences for children is also delightfully revealed in Laura’s stories. Shall we take a peek at Laura and her peers at play?

Laura Ingalls was born in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, near Pepin, on February 7, 1867. Her sister, Mary, was just two years older. Some of Laura’s first play experiences were during the family’s years spent in travelling, and in Indian Territory (Kansas), when she was two to four years old. In Little House on the Prairie, Laura explores the natural world around her, plays with her family’s dog, Jack, and discovers beads in the dust at an abandoned Indian campsite. Her sister, Carrie, is born during this time.

Though Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in the series, the events portrayed here happen, historically, after Little House on the Prairie. Laura is between the ages of four and seven during this time, and tells us much about her work and her play. With the book opening in the fall, the first toy we learn about is the pig’s bladder from butchering time. The bladder is blown up and tied with string to make a white balloon. Laura and Mary bat it in the air with their hands. When cold weather comes, the girls play in the attic where large yellow pumpkins make perfect tables and chairs. Mary has a rag doll named Nettie, But Laura’s doll, Susan, is just a corn cob wrapped in a handkerchief.

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Of course music from Pa’s fiddle and storytelling are the best entertainment for long winter nights. In one of Pa’s stories, we learn that Grandpa and his two older brothers build their own sled.

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For Christmas, the cousins spend the night at Laura’s house, and each child wakes to find that Santa has filled their stockings! Red mittens and peppermint candy were there for all.

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But Laura was happiest of all. Laura had a rag doll. She was a beautiful doll. She had a face of white cloth with black button eyes.  A black pencil had made her eyebrows, and her cheeks and her mouth were red with the ink made from pokeberries. Her hair was black yarn that had been knit and raveled, so that it was curly. She had little red flannel stockings and little black cloth gaiters for shoes, and her dress was pretty pink and blue calico.

            She was so beautiful that Laura could not say a word. She just held her tight and forgot everything else. . . . She loved her red mittens and she loved her candy, but she loved her doll best of all. She named her Charlotte. [LHBW 74-76]

Santa brought Charlotte to Laura that Christmas, but certainly it was Ma’s handiwork which made that beautiful rag doll with sewing scraps and her needle and thread.   The doll pictured below, from Mary White’s eBay auction, is contemporary with Laura’s rag doll and has a face just drawn with pencil. For her birthday about six weeks later, Mary gave Laura a new dress for Charlotte that she made herself when Laura thought she was sewing on her patchwork quilt. Laura also received a wooden man that Pa had whittled to be company for Charlotte.

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When spring came again, Laura and Mary had playhouses under the two big oaks in the front yard. Pa made a swing of tough bark that hung from a low branch. Mary had a cracked saucer and Laura had a cup with only one big chip out of it to set on the smooth rock table, and they made leaf cups and saucers. Nettie and Charlotte had tea outside with their two wooden men companions, and every day Laura and Mary made fresh leaf hats for them.

From Laura’s stories of play in Little House in the Big Woods, it is evident that little girls practiced sewing by making clothing for their dolls, and they practiced housekeeping and etiquette with dolls and tea parties.

Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s husband, was born almost exactly six years before she was, on February 13, 1861 near Malone, New York. (Almanzo’s age is deduced from the Minnesota state census of 1875, where his family lived at the time, showing him to be 14 years of age. He later claimed to be 21, when he was actually 18, in order to file on a claim in Dakota Territory.)  His farming family held a very strong work ethic which is reflected in Almanzo’s character, and in his play. His first love is for animals, and specifically, for the Morgan horses his father raised. For his birthday in Farmer Boy, he receives a handmade yoke for his little team of oxen. He spends the day home from school (with his pockets full of doughnuts), beginning to break the young oxen, then wandering around to visit his mother and father at their daily work. It becomes evident that the family made most everything they needed on their prosperous farm, including clothing made from hand spun and woven wool from their Merino sheep, soap and candles, and wooden implements ranging from tools and shingles, to the little bobsled for the young oxen as they grow stronger and wiser under Almanzo’s tutelage. (In the photo below, Almanzo, age ten, is second from left.)

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At the town’s Independence Day celebration, Almanzo asks his father for a nickle to buy lemonade. To his surprise, he receivs a whole half-dollar, with a lesson about money and work. He decides to forgo the lemonade and uses his money to buy a sucking pig to raise.

Christmas at the farm near Malone, as in the Big Woods, included cousins. In his stocking, Almanzo received a nickle’s worth of horehound candy, an orange, dried figs, mittens, and a jackknife. His sisters, who were in their early to mid teens, received lace and jewelry.

Laura was seven the spring that her family moved west for the first time, in 1874, to a farm near Walnut Grove, Minnesota. This is the setting for On the Banks of Plum Creek. Laura has wonderful adventures here, including expanding her social range with church, school, and friends in town. Christy was her special friend, and Nellie and her brother Willie opened up new experiences for Laura through their father’s store and the material wealth they enjoyed.

It is quite apparent that Laura was a bit of a tomboy and preferred to be outdoors exploring rather than sitting quietly and sewing or reading, as was Mary’s preference. They both enjoyed exploring the creek and playing with tubes made from the rushes growing there. They also naughtily slid down the straw stacks that Pa made. Laura still had feminine pastimes for cold and rainy days in the house, though. She made an apron for Charlotte, and she wanted a new dress for her doll for Christmas that first year. There were no boughten gifts (except for candy) that year because they needed a team of horses. Laura and Mary made a button string for Carrie from buttons Ma had saved since she was younger than Laura.

Six antique china buttons

When Pa began building the wonderful house of pine boards the next spring, Laura and Mary played with the curly wood shavings. They made necklaces and earrings, and Laura hung them in her hair to make the golden curls she longed to have. The two sisters shared the attic of this house, where they each had a box for their special belongings. Charlotte, and the box of paper dolls that Ma had cut out of wrapping paper, lived in Laura’s box, and Mary kept her quilt blocks and scrap bag in her box.

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Laura and Mary began attending school in Walnut Grove after they moved into the house. Here they met and played with other children from the town. The little girls played rhyme games, such as Ring-Around-A-Rosie, and Uncle John. Nelly gave a party that the Ingalls girls attended, where Laura saw wonderful toys, but she was also hurt by Nellie’s behavior toward her. Willie had a velocipede, which is a nineteenth century bicycle with pedals attached to the front wheel, and a Noah’s ark, two whole armies of tin soldiers in bright blue or red uniforms, and a jumping-jack made of thin wood that somersaulted over the strings that held him on his wood frame.  But most amazing of all were Nellie’s dolls.

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Even the big girls were chattering and squealing over those animals and those soldiers, and they laughed at the jumping-jack till they cried.

Then Nellie walked among them, saying, “You can look at my doll.”

            The doll had a china head, with smooth red cheeks and red mouth. Her eyes were black and her china hair was black and waved. Her wee hands were china, and her feet were tiny china feet in black china shoes.

            “Oh!” Laura said, “Oh, what a beautiful doll! Oh, Nellie, what is her name?”

            “She’s nothing but an old doll,” Nellie said. “I don’t care about this doll. You wait till you see my wax doll.”

            She threw the china doll in a drawer, and she took out a long box. She put the box on the bed and she took off its lid. All the girls leaned around her to look.

            There lay a doll that seemed to be alive. Real golden hair lay in soft curls on her pillow. Her lips were parted, showing two tiny white teeth. Her eyes were closed. The doll was sleeping there in the box.

            Nellie lifted her up, and her eyes opened wide. They were big blue eyes. She seemed to laugh. Her arms stretched out and she said, “Mamma!” . . .

            She was dressed in blue silk. Her petticoats were real petticoats, trimmed with ruffles and lace, and her panties were real little panties that would come off. On her feet were real little blue leather slippers.  [OBPC 163-165]

How enchanting these dolls of Nellie’s sound! From a collector’s point of view, the description of these dolls is intriguing. The china doll with her hair that was black and waved could very well have been a common German flat top style of the 1870’s with flat china shoes.

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The wax doll seems to indeed be a special doll. While wax dolls in the 1870’s could have had sleep eyes and voice boxes, these were more common features for French and German bisque dolls that were available in the 1870’s. Also, many bisque dolls of this time had closed mouths. Open mouths with teeth, as well as weighted eyes that open and close, are typically seen on later bisque dolls in the 1890’s and early twentieth century. I did find a “pumpkin head” wax doll on eBay that has an open mouth with no teeth, and glass sleep eyes. This doll has large feet that could accommodate leather slippers. The box for this doll is also extant, and described as a coffin-type shipping crate, with a lid that slides off and fully protects the doll. Although no date is given for this eBay doll, this one sounds very similar to Nellie’s doll. Finally, if panties that would come off were novel for Laura, is it possible that her rag doll did not have underclothes of this sort? She describes only dresses, aprons, and socks for Charlotte. (Following is a photo of my wax doll, Aurora, who has stationary all black glass eyes.)

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Laura was obviously enthralled by this, probably her first sight of the lovely dolls being imported from Germany and France during this time.  But as we see in the story, Nellie did not let her have a longer look. Laura spent the rest of the party play time looking at a children’s magazine and a Mother Goose book, also new experiences for her. When Laura invited the town girls to her house for a party, she declined to show them her rag doll, claiming that she played in the creek and not with dolls.

As Laura grew, we know that she still cared for her doll, even if she did not play with her so much anymore. One time they have a visitor, their neighbor, Mrs. Nelson with her daughter, Anna, who is slightly older than Carrie. The girls try to entertain Anna with paper dolls, and are horrified when she tears one in two. Laura brings out Charlotte for her to play with, but when they leave, disaster strikes for Laura. Anna wants to keep Charlotte, and Ma lets her! Laura is desolate without her doll! A month or so later, Laura finds Charlotte abandoned in a frozen puddle in Anna’s yard. She reclaims her, though she is scalped, and in this story she has a smiling yarn mouth that is torn and bleeding. Ma and Laura thaw Charlotte and wring her out. She receives a new pale pink face, new shoe button eyes, and new golden brown hair in wee braids tied with blue ribbons.

That Christmas, after Pa came home from working the harvests in the east, there was a Christmas tree at the church with wonderful gifts for the people of Walnut Grove from the Missionary Society back east. Among these gifts, a rag doll with a china head came to Carrie. Being a hand-me-down doll, perhaps this one was an old flat top or Greiner type with ballerina feet and blunt hands, like my Kloster Veilsdorf doll, pictured below.

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After these fondly remembered adventures at Walnut Grove, the Ingalls family had hard times for a while. Laura had to grow up fast after Mary went blind and there was a new baby sister, Grace, to look after. The family moved west again, to their final destination of Laura’s childhood, at Silver Lake, which became De Smet, South Dakota. Laura had a play day with her cousin, Lena, during this exodus, and she thrilled at riding a pony bareback. Laura and Carrie also had fun sliding on the ice of Silver Lake their first winter in Dakota Territory when they lived in the surveyors’ house. Pa made a checker board, but claimed it was a selfish game, as only two could play. Of course the music of Pa’s fiddle filled the evenings when the family was alone on the prairie through the winter months. Mary’s favorite song was “Highland Mary.” Perhaps this is where the china child doll with bangs gets her name.

Ye banks and braes and streams around

The castle of Montgomery,

Green be your woods and fair your flowers,

Your waters never drumlie;

There summer first unfolds her robes

And there the langest tarry,

For there I took the last fareweel

Of my sweet Highland Mary.

How sweetly bloomed the gay, green birk,

How rich the hawthorn’s blossom,

As underneath their fragrant shade

I clasped her to my bosom.

The golden hours on angel wings

Flew o’er me and my dearie

For dear to me as light and life

Was my sweet Highland Mary!

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Christmases during the early years in Dakota Territory are filled with hand sewn, knitted, and embroidered gifts. We know that Ma was fond of Godey’s Lady’s Book, first mentioned in Little House in the Big Woods, and it would follow that many of the handmade gifts were taken from the pages of this periodical. Godey’s Lady’s Book was published by Louis A. Godey, from Philadelphia, from 1830 to 1898. The magazine is best known for the hand-tinted fashion plate that appeared at the start of each issue, which provide a record of the progression of women’s dress. Almost every issue also included an illustration and pattern with measurements for a garment to be sewn at home.

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Laura and her sisters also looked forward to receiving bundles of Youth’s Companions in the mail, sent to them by the children of the Sunday School in Minnesota. This was one of the best known, and longest lived, periodicals for children of the time. Pieces generally appeared in various departments, such as “Editorials,” “Learning,” or “Benevolence.” “Moral Tales” usually were long, genteel pot-boilers featured on the front page. By the 1860s, the departments had been secularized: “Scraps for Youth,” “Children’s Column,” and “Variety” were the three major sections. (Information about these two publications was gleaned from Wikipedia.)

During The Long Winter, when resources were scarce because the trains couldn’t get through, the Ingalls girls save their bundle of Youth’s Companions to open for Christmas. Grace received a wooden Jumping Jack made with two little somersaulting men between red posts. Though Laura does not tell us, this must have been a store bought gift from one of the two general stores in town. That year, the family has Christmas in May after the barrel from the Missionary Society finally arrived on the previously snowbound train. Though the contents of the barrel were second-hand, they were marveled at, and were greatly appreciated gifts. Toys for the younger girls in this offering included an ABC cloth book and a shiny Mother Goose book. Laura receives silk embroidery thread to replace that which she used and gave away the pevious Christmas, and Mary receives a fascinator, which is a fine, lacy head covering akin to a shawl and made from wool or lace, and often with feathers.

The photo below shows Carrie, Mary, and Laura, taken in De Smet, probably shortly before Mary went away to Iowa to attend the school for the blind. Laura is 14 in this photo.

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Christmas without Mary, the next year, is bleak for Laura, though she does receive a book of Tennyson’s poems, and an autograph album which Ma and Pa brought her all the way from Vinton, Iowa, where Mary was going to school. We do get a peek at Grace’s toy gifts again this year. She receives a real china doll with china head, hands, and little black slippers sewed on her cloth feet. Pa made a cradle for this doll by putting rockers on a cigar box, and Laura and Carrie made little sheets, a pillow, a wee patchwork quilt, and a nightgown and nightcap for this lucky doll, and their littlest sister. Then later, when Mary comes home from school during the summer, she gives Grace a little doll’s chair that she made of red and green beads strung on wire. Since the year of this Christmas would have been the early 1880’s, perhaps Grace’s doll was one of the new German child dolls which were just coming into production at this time; maybe even a Highland Mary, or an Alt Beck & Gottschalk doll with black curls like this one from my collection.

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As Laura grows in maturity in her later books in the “Little House” series, we learn no more about dolls and play. Her focus changes to teaching school, and to sewing for pay on weekends and during the summer. We do hear more details of her dresses and hats that she and Ma make. She enjoys her friends at school, though she does eventually give up playing ball with the boys at recess, and she loves sleigh and buggy rides with Almanzo, behind his beautiful and fast horses.

Laura learns almost all she needs to know from Ma to be Almanzo’s farm wife, though she finds it more difficult to do the work alone, and she learns some lessons along the way. She continues to love pony rides until her daughter, Rose, is born in December, 1886. After that, she takes Rose about in a drygoods box fastened at her feet in the two wheeled road cart. We hear of Rose’s little red cape in winter, and her little pink sunbonnet in the spring. As Rose becomes a toddler, Laura says that she is a busy little girl, playing with the cat, and her picture books and letter blocks. Rose also spent much playtime out-of-doors, and Laura recounts her escapades on the farm, and with the animals. But Laura never mentions dolls in relation to Rose, and Rose does not mention any, either, in writing the Preface and Afterward to Laura’s journals, On the Way Home, and. West From Home. Laura and Almanzo experienced hard times and poverty when Rose was a child, and perhaps Rose did not own a fine and expensive French or German bisque doll, which were widely available when she was a child. Or perhaps, any little dolls she had were not mentioned because The First Four Years was published in the form of Laura’s draft, and Rose did not edit it into the finely written and detailed form of the previous books. We do discover that Rose was quite intelligent and studious, even at an early age. She began school early and excelled there. Perhaps she had no interest in playing dolls, as her mother and aunts had. (Below, Rose, age three, insists on showing her carnelian ring in the photograph.)

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Laura’s “Little House” books reveal four generations of children, toys, and playtime in the nineteenth century. Her stories evidence the progression of toys through the decades of that century, the advancement of playthings from poor and migrant families, through those of more well-to-do families, and the development of playtime interests as children in that century grew older. Then, as now, play had a purpose: Play was a means to learn how to be an adult in the world into which one was born and raised, sometimes a means to break out of the role intended for one by adults, and as always, play was for fun!

I count myself as quite fortunate to be able to surround myself with antique household items, textiles, toys, and dolls from the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this way, I am able to be part of the history of these dolls and antiques, as they predate me, and will live beyond me. While they bring the past with them, they are now, and can never be a long time ago.

Pa’s strong, sweet voice was softly singing . . . When the fiddle had stopped singing, Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago. [LHBW pp 237,238]

Bibliography:

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods. New York: Harper & Row, 1932.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Farmer Boy. New York: Harper & Row, 1933.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. New York: Harper & Row, 1935.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. On the Banks of Plum Creek. New York: Harper & Row, 1937.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. By the Shores of Silver Lake. New York: Harper & Row, 1939.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. The Long Winter. New York: Harper & Row, 1940.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little Town on the Prairie. New York: Harper & Row, 1941.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. These Happy Golden Years. New York: Harper & Row, 1943.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. The First Four Years. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Zochert, Donald. Laura; The Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. New York: Avon Books. 1976.

Illustrations from the “Little House” books are by Garth Williams.

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