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:

DSC03206 (2) Price obliterated

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.




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

  1. Lovely story Jennifer. Many dolls suffer mishaps as they pass through time. I know you felt badly, but the fact that they are still loved and still part of someone’s world is the important part. This could have easily happened decades ago, and it wouldn’t have made the doll any less special or beautiful.

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