History of China Dolls

This page offers an introduction to, and brief history of, antique glazed porcelain dolls, which we commonly refer to as china dolls, as well as a history of porcelain production. I will show you clues to look for to place your doll in a time-frame, including shoulder-plate shapes, molded hairstyles, china limbs, and bodies. An outline of the better known porcelain doll factories will be included, as well as a list of references for more information.

A Short History of Porcelain Production

China porcelain is made from a combination of china clay, quartz, and feldspar. The manufacture of porcelain existed first in China, since the 7th century, but remained a secret for centuries because betrayal of the secret was punishable by death. It is believed that Marco Polo first brought porcelain ornamental objects to Europe from his travels, around 1300. In Europe, the manufacturing process for porcelain was known by the name Arkanum, referring to a deep secret or mystery, and porcelain was such a wonderful and precious material that it was owned only by royalty.

In 1700, Johann Friedrich Botticher, a German, discovered the process of Arkanum in Saxony, producing brown porcelain in 1706. By 1710, white porcelain was being produced, and Konigliche Porzellanmanufaktur (KPM) was founded in Meissen, Saxony (Germany). Within 40 years there were about 14 manufacturers of porcelain in Europe, producing only fine products, including dishes and ornamental objects. Porcelain was precious enough at this time to be owned only by the wealthy class.

Thuringia, a neighboring state to Saxony, had established a thriving toy making industry since the 14th century. In 1760, four men independently invented the process of Arkanum for the third time. Thuringia has an excellent supply of the clay and minerals needed for porcelain production, as well as forests for wood to fire the kilns, so it is an ideal location for porcelain manufacture. Two porcelain factories were established in Thuringia in 1760, with more to follow. The factories in Thuringia had to find markets on their own initiative, while those in Saxony and Prussia supplied the kings and queens of Europe with porcelain. Since Thuringia had an established market for toys, it seems inevitable that porcelain would eventually become a new material for making dolls.

Antique Nanking china teapot

18th Century Nanking China teapot, typical of porcelain imported to Colonial America (stock photo)

In Colonial and Early America, porcelain dishes and ornaments were imported from China through the shipping trades. That (and the fact that porcelain was invented in China long before it came to Europe) is why glazed porcelain is commonly referred to as “china,” though the dolls we refer to as “china dolls” were, for the most part, made in Germany.

Porcelain was rare, and still rather precious, until after the mid 19th century. By around 1870, however, the mass production of porcelain was established and prices were low enough for common people to buy and own porcelain products. An inherent result of this mass production was that the quality of many porcelain goods dropped. With some exceptions, such as the fine porcelain dishes manufactured near Dresden, Germany and decorated there, porcelain was no longer fine art fit only for royalty. It was now a common commodity.

DSC01558

Dresden porcelain Rosenthal soup tureen, WWII era (author’s collection)

Development and History of China Dolls

Figurines of beautiful ladies and well-dressed men (Rokokofigurines) were among the ornaments that were produced in Europe during the early years of porcelain manufacture. It was not a far stretch for the article of the figurine to be modified to a bust, and then to the china shoulder-head that could be mounted onto a filled cloth or wooden body. There is record of a pre-1825 glazed pink porcelain doll head with the KPM Meissen mark being auctioned (Danckert, Ludwig. Directory of European Porcelain, 1973), so it seems that a few independently produced heads were made in the first quarter of the 19th century.

Mass production of china shoulder-heads first took place in the 1840’s, though they were still relatively few in number. The production of the shoulder-heads in this very early period was still experimental, and the dolls were made, not so much as children’s toys, but as fine art that was ready to move beyond the display cabinet, as ornaments pleasing to behold. These KPM Meissen, KPM Berlin, Royal Copenhagen, and Schlaggenwald heads were finely molded ladies, often with molded flowers and ribbons decorating their hair. Older girls and ladies could sew clothing for them, and they could be brought out for special occasions.

Antique brown hair Morning Glory china doll

Schlaggenwald “Morning Glory”

Before the advent of porcelain dolls, common materials for manufactured dolls were wood, papier mache, and wax. (Dolls were made at home from cloth and other natural materials at hand.) Thuringia, as previously mentioned, was well established in the manufacture of toys, due to the availability of natural materials, good roads for transportation, and cheap labor. By 1850, porcelain dolls as toys began to come on the market. These included china shoulder-heads and the all-porcelain bathing dolls, commonly referred to as “Frozen Charlottes” or “Frozen Charlies.” By 1860, Nanking dolls, or those with inexpensive cotton bodies, were available as damenkopfe, or lady dolls, and not as commonly, as kinderkopf, or child dolls.

Frozen Charlotte from Ruby Lane

Frozen Charlotte with Flat Top hair style

As the porcelain dolls proved to be a success on the market, more companies began to manufacture them, at first copying the success of the KPM dolls. KPM, for whom the dolls were a sideline of production, ended their manufacture of dolls.

Many of the china dolls we collect today were manufactured in Germany, though there were porcelain factories in other countries that made china dolls as well. There were seven prominent factories in Thuringia, Germany making china dolls from the early 1840’s through the 1930’s. These factories are J. D. Kestner, A.W. Fr. Kister, Kloster Veilsdorf, Conta & Boeme, C.F. Kling & Co., Alt, Beck & Gottschalck (ABG), and Hertwig & Co. Most of these factories did not mark their dolls, especially in the early years of production. An outline of each of these factories will be included in more detail below.

There were other smaller and less well known factories throughout Europe producing china dolls as well. Schlaggenwald was a Czech factory to whom the “Grape Lady” doll is attributed. This doll was formerly thought to have been made by KPM; however, it is now known that KPM always marked their dolls. The Swedish company of Rorstrand made high quality china dolls, as did Jacob Petit in France. China dolls were produced in England, as well.

Grape Lady china doll from ebay

The “Grape Lady”

When considering china dolls from a collectible standpoint, it becomes important to note that the porcelain factories made china parts—shoulder-heads, limbs, and baderkinder (the “frozen” all porcelain dolls)—then the parts were sold to other companies or cottage industries to be assembled with bodies (usually cloth) and dressed. Doll parts were also sold directly from stores (as in America and England) to be assembled with a body and clothed at home. Ladies’ and children’s magazines often included patterns for doll bodies and costumes.

Toys were scarce commodities in the 19th century, especially before the Civil War, and dolls were passed along, often to a cousin or niece, when a girl outgrew doll play. These handed-down dolls often received new cloth bodies and an updated wardrobe for the new child owner. For these reasons, china dolls can be found on a wide range of bodies—some rough and primitive, some professionally made—and still be original. By the 1870’s, patented bodies with sewn-on corsets, stockings, shoes, and later with printed fabric bodies, were common on china dolls. Of course, after 100 to 170 years, many china dolls found on the market now have replacement bodies. It is important to retain old bodies that come with dolls for historical preservation.

Antique cloth doll bodies from ebay

Cloth doll bodies for china shoulder-heads

Each decade that the china dolls were manufactured showed an exponential rise  in the number that were produced. While thousands, or tens of thousands of china dolls were produced in the decades up to 1870, by the 1880’s and 1890’s, millions of child doll and low brow china shoulder heads were being made. This was the era when porcelain became affordable, and common people could buy and own porcelain products.

There are three areas that distinguish quality in china dolls. The first is the quality of the porcelain. Second is the quality of the molding. Third is the quality of the facial painting. As the china dolls entered into the era of uber mass production, it was inevitable that their quality suffered. Though low brow dolls and half-dolls for pincushions and lamps continued to be produced into the 1930’s, the quality of most of these dolls is poor. The porcelain being used was grainy and gray, the molding lost its sharp details, and the painting was quickly applied and poorly rendered. China dolls finally succumbed to the demand for the popular and beautiful bisque and composition child dolls.

Antique Lydia china doll

Superb quality “Lydia” china shoulder-head, circa 1850.

Antique Hertwig doll poorly made

Poor quality small low brow china shoulder-head, circa 1900

A note on Parian dolls

Parian dolls are another form of porcelain doll similar to, but not the same as, the chinas.  They did not come from Paris; rather they are named because the white bisque they are made from resembles the white Greek marble that came from the island of Paros. They first came into production around 1860 after the chinas had been around long enough for there to be some dissatisfaction because the glazed porcelain was not life-like.  Parian is unglazed bisque that is not tinted, so it still retains a white hue. A higher degree of modelling could be acheived with the parian bisque than was possible with glazed china dolls. Parian dolls are beautiful lady and girl dolls, almost always with blonde hair. They have elaborate hairstyles, and often have molded hair ornaments, jewelry, and collars or frills molded onto their shoulder-plates. Being too detailed and fragile to be children’s playthings, their production lasted for only a short time. The 1860’s also saw the advent of bisque dolls, which are unglazed porcelain dolls that are tinted in pink or flesh tones. This tinting makes the dolls appear warmer and more life-like, so by the 1880’s bisque dolls were produced more than Parians.

Antique Parian Toinette

Parian doll with elaborate hair

For more on the history of china dolls, take a peek at:

Dolls from the Attic

Vintage Collectibles 

For More Information:

Borger, Mona. Chinas: Dolls for Study and Admiration. San Francisco: Borger Publications, 1983.

A wide variety of china dolls, including an impressive collection of early brown-haired chinas, are shown in this book. Color photos of groups of dolls are shown full length, which gives a good view of the size and proportions of the dolls, as well as of their costumes. Frozen Charlottes, wigged chinas, and some glass eyed dolls are shown. The doll heads are photographed front, side, and back view. A small sample of china legs and doll bodies are shown. Markings on the dolls are described, though there is much speculation about unmarked and unknown marks on the dolls, as this book was published before Mary Krombholz  documented the Thuringian porcelain factories.

Krombholz, Mary Gorham. Identifying German Chinas 1840s – 1930s. Grantsville, MD: Hobby House Press, Inc., 2004.

Mary Krombholz’s first book is organized chronologically by decades that the dolls were made. It is an excellent resource for learning the many types of china dolls, and learning how to distinguish by which factory an unmarked doll was made based on face painting characteristics. Only the heads and shoulder-plates are shown for most of the dolls, so bodies, limbs, and costumes are not part of the research line in this book.

Krombholz, Mary Gorham. A Pictorial Reference Guide for German Chinas, 2009.

The newer book by Mary Krombholz is organized by factory, giving a better overview of the history of the seven major Thuringian porcelain factories that manufactured china dolls. This organization is more intuitive for comparing dolls made by one factory. A page of painting characteristics for that factory is included at the end of each chapter, with a range of examples shown. As with the previous book, the focus is on the shoulder-heads, not on the complete doll.

Richter, Lydia. China, Parian, & Bisque German Dolls. Grantsville, MD: Hobby House Press, Inc., 1993.

The main focus of this book is the parian dolls, with a sampling of china and bisque dolls included to show chronology and the connection between these types of dolls. Some whole dolls are shown in costume. The historical overview of the porcelain industry and porcelain dolls is excellent.

Seeley, Mildred. Beloved China Dolls. Livonia, MI: Scott Publications, 1996.

As the title infers, this book is much more personal than the others. It is perhaps my favorite one to pore over. Mildred Seeley’s mother had a collection of china dolls. Though she collected antique dolls, and made bisque and china dolls, it was late in life that Mildred decided to acquire a collection of chinas to accompany her family china dolls. This book showcases that collection, which has since been auctioned, after her death. The dolls are each introduced, including Mildred’s names for them, as friends might do when they get together to “play dolls.” There is some confusing speculation about the makers of unmarked dolls, as this book was also published prior to Mary Krombholz’s research. The sections on the doll bodies, limbs (china, cloth, and leather), underwear, and costumes are exceptional! Mildred focused on the whole doll, and this book is the best resource I have found in that regard.

Antique photo 1911 girl with CLEAR flattop china doll with legs showing

1911 Toddler girl with Flat Top China Doll

I am posting this as a work-in-progress, so check back for further developments.

Coming Attractions:

The Makers: Porcelain Factories

China Shoulder Plates: A Study in Shape

Molded Hairstyles

China Limbs

A Word on Bodies

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4 thoughts on “History of China Dolls

  1. Hi. China dolls are adorable; I bought one recently. She has a pet name, Marion, and when I got home I found that she was leaking sawdust. So I inspected her body and found that she had a wire that was sticking out of her tummy. Did they make china dolls with wire? Please email me back. Thanks

    • Hi Jessica,

      Thanks for commenting on my blog. The Pet Name china dolls made by Hertwig are fairly recent as china dolls go. They were made from around 1890 to 1920. They had manufactured cloth bodies which did sometimes have a wire inside. I think the wire was to help them keep good posture. I also have a couple of dolls that have leaks where the wire has pierced the body fabric. You can hand sew a muslin patch over the hole.

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