Aesthetics and Whimsy: Thoughts on Dolls and Depression Glass as Art

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Miss Oita is one of the 58 Ambassador Dolls sent to the US from Japan in 1927 after US children sent 12,739 “Blue Eyed” dolls to children in  Japan. Miss Oita represents Okayama Prefecture and resides in the Springfield Museum of MA.

A whole weekend off work is a rare pleasure for me. Last night I was reading my newly acquired book about the Japanese Friendship Dolls, especially the chapter on “The Japanese Doll” (so much new and useful background information for me!), and the subsection entitled “Why Ambassador [Friendship] Dolls are Art.” In a nutshell, this essay points out that one of the Friendship doll makers, Hirata Goyo II, signed his dolls on the back of their heads indicating that he viewed himself as an artist. All of the 30″ high Friendship Dolls were made by hand to the highest standards of craftsmanship and consistency of style. Because they were hand made, the dolls of each of the six makers had slight variations in their style. Goyo most likely signed his dolls because his way of thinking was leaning toward the new way of innovation and individuation, while the other artists were thinking in the more traditional Japanese style of working collectively.   After much reasoning, examples and details, this essay concluded that all 58 of the friendship dolls, not just those of Goyo, are indeed works of art.

Miss Kyoto-fu by Hirata Goyo II

Miss Kyoto-fu was made by Hirata Goyo II and resides in the Children’s Museum of Boston. Note the variation of her smiling mouth with teeth showing.

This essay on dolls as art has helped me to crystalize my thoughts on German china dolls as art. To point, can factory made objects intended for play be considered as art? I believe that they can, especially when we are considering the earlier dolls where careful attention was given to individually hand painted features. While the dolls of each factory had to conform to consistency standards of production, there were still small individuations in the dolls, such as wisps in the hair along the hairline, and slight mouth and eye variations that lend differences to expressions or moods for the dolls. Even though the German chinas were not signed by individual artists, they were painted by doll makers, and many (though not all) do reach the standard of art.

Early German Meissen China Head Doll

This early Meissen German china doll has the most beautiful and serene expression that I have seen on a doll of this mold.

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A variety of green Depression Glass in my collection. Some think that green is more desirable than pink glass. I’m glad that I have some of each.

Today, the second day of my full weekend off, I unpacked my last box of Depression Glass to fill out my collection displays. And doing so, I pondered this question of art further: Can mass produced objects like this glass be considered art? Perhaps this is pushing the definition of art too far, yet there are definitely artistic qualities to this glassware that I hold so dear.

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Here is a bowl in the “Oyster and Pearl” pattern in my collection viewed from above to show the lovely symmetry of its design.

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The same “Oyster and Pearl” bowl from the side.

This glassware, produced in a variety of jewel-like colors, was made from the late 1920’s until about 1940 (hence its name). It was often given, or sold at low prices, as premiums for purchasing products such as oats or laundry soap. Therefore, it was quickly produced without much quality control, so rough edges and seam lines, and other imperfections are often found. Oh, but the array of patterns, shapes, proportions, pressed designs, and colors are delightful! There had to have been designers to come up with the patterns that were put into production–were they not artists in their own right?

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“Aunt Polly” is a most extraordinary shade of blue!

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A “Mayfair” cup and saucer in a different shade of blue. Note the beautifully pressed floral motif.

In his book, The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life, Thomas Moore makes the point that useful and utilitarian objects and tools can be so much more delightful and whimsical, as well as useful, when we give them creative and artistic form. This is exactly what Depression Glass does with otherwise utilitarian objects such as dinner plates and refrigerator boxes.

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“American Sweetheart” is made from thin milk-white glass that takes on the color underneath it around the pattern edges.

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A Royal Ruby berry bowl in “Coronation” pattern stacks fine ribs on top of wide ribs for an elegant design.

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Even the handle is elegant.

Of course, one’s sense of the aesthetic is colored (pun intended) by one’s time and place of being. By the 1940’s, people considered that colored glass to be old fashioned (which they thought was a bad thing; imagine that!) and the new clear, or crystal, glass with modern straight lines and geometric shapes was in fashion. Oh dear, I just don’t understand. I will stay with the whimsical jewel tones!

Manhatten Candle Holder

“Manhattan” candle holder. This pattern was made from 1938 to 1943.

References:

Kita, Terry. The Sun Shines For Us All: The Friendship Dolls From Japan. Valparaiso, IN: Valparaiso University, 2015.

Florence, Gene. Collector’s Encyclopedia of Depression Glass (14th Ed.). Paducah, KY: Collectors Books, 2000.

Moore, Thomas. The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life. New York: Harper Collins, 1997

Woman at sink 1930s farmhouse kitchen

I think she finds joy in washing her colored glass in front of her sunny window. (circa 1930’s)

 

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