It’s All About Karen: A Memorial, and a Covered Wagon China Doll


Karen wears a wistful smile and a sensible hairstyle.

My sister-in-law, Karen, was born in April, 1949. She was Lucile’s first child, the oldest of two sisters with three younger brothers. I know, from hearing their childhood stories, and watching them in action as young adults, that this was a rowdy bunch of siblings with their fair share of rivalry. As smart as she was, I’m sure Karen added her share of scheming in the mix. Yet she looks so serene and beautiful in these childhood photos.


Lucile with her first four children. Karen is on the left. Christmas, 1955


All five children are here for Christmas in 1957, Karen is on the right.


Karen was married before the Viet Nam War, and when her husband received his draft notice, they decided to move to Canada. He took a job teaching at Lake Wollaston in Saskatchewan, far northern Canada. Karen lived in a small community of mostly Cree Indians. She raised a garden, and was quite happy when she made a greenhouse to extend her growing season. She learned how to preserve and prepare wild game, including bear. Her parents drove to visit her every summer for many years, having to fly in for the final leg of their journey.


John and Lucile’s family circa 1967, Karen is on the right. The uncomfortable looking guy in the pale jacket is the one I married. He is about 13 here.

I met Karen, and her young son Anton, before I married her brother, but she was not able to be at our wedding. Between her residence in Canada, and my years living in the Far East, I must have only spent half a dozen times with her. I have fond memories of nights with her and Lucile, staying up until 2 in the morning, talking about life, philosophy, and books. I admired Karen, and wanted to be good and strong like she was. I wanted to build a life from the ground up like she did.

The last time I saw Karen was the summer of 1997. We were both in Nebraska for her father’s funeral. She died suddenly of natural causes two weeks later. She had not reached her 50th  birthday. Her son died only a few years later, and both were survived by their loving mother and grandmother, Lucile. I don’t even have a photo of Karen as an adult, since my time with her was before digital photography. My favorite photo of her is a wistful one of her holding a pouty one-year-old Anton. It won a local photo contest. Now Karen’s legacy continues in my memory, and in the memories of those who loved her.


I named my covered wagon china doll Karen, after my sister-in-law, who was a pioneer in her own life. Finding my covered wagon doll was a bit of an adventure. I saw her in an e-bay listing shortly after I began studying antique china dolls. I knew the covered wagon dolls were some of the oldest chinas from the 1850’s. I found this doll’s listing in “china dolls” but she did not show up in “antique china dolls.” There was only one photo of her, and the seller did not seem very knowledgeable about china dolls. I could see from the photo that she was a covered wagon shoulder-head, but it was possible she was a reproduction. I was sure her body was newer. However, she had an exquisitely detailed historically accurate reproduction silk dress. Since her starting price was quite low for a covered wagon china, I decided to bid on her. I thought that even if she was a reproduction, her dress would be worth the price for her. Well, I was the only bidder, and here she is!

Karen has the characteristic center part with smooth hair on the sides that end in short ringlet curls that conform to the shape of her head. After examining Karen’s shoulder-head, I still could not decide, at first, if she was a reproduction or not. I had not seen any other antique covered wagon dolls at that time. I thought that her face painting looked accurate for German china dolls, but her eyes are a brilliant royal blue that I had not seen before on antique china dolls. After more study, after observing listings on Ruby Lane, and after having seen covered wagon china dolls in a museum, I can now say with certainty that Karen is an antique covered wagon china shoulder-head made by the Kestner factory in the 1850’s.




Karen’s shoulder-head has a pale pink tint. Her eyes are bright blue with white highlight dots and pink half-circles denoting tear ducts. She has nostril circles and two-toned pink lips with a white space between them. These are all  characteristics of Kestner dolls.


The overskirt is attached to the hand quilted petticoat which has a pleated flounce.


Covered wagon china dolls in original clothing often wore simple cotton dresses. Karen is on a very firm replaced cotton body with replacement china arms and legs. Her 1870’s style silk dress, which is a separate skirt and bodice, was made just for her. I wonder if someone made it to enter in a competition, because it is so well done.


Karen’s replacement legs have gold accents on the accurate flat soled shoes.

The quilted petticoat is lined with coordinating floral print calico. While this is a pretty combination, it is the one part of the costume that I would claim is not historically accurate. On an 1870’s dress, the lining would probably have been solid polished cotton.


I added the black lace fan that Karen carries under her bead trimmed velvet cuff.


The bodice yoke is velvet with elaborate hand-sewn bead trim and a lace inset.


In this Civil War era photograph, the girl holds a covered wagon (or possibly a Sophia Smith or Lydia style) china doll, while the boy holds a plush rabbit.

Happy Birthday Karen! I still love and admire you!


2 thoughts on “It’s All About Karen: A Memorial, and a Covered Wagon China Doll

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