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Here’s the start of a typical summer day at my house, say between 1958 and 1962. I’ll bet this will bring back some memories for you as well.
With five children to care for, my mother was up and running by 6:00 a.m., probably feeling a little like the old woman who lived in a shoe. By the time we kids woke up, she had already washed half of the laundry in her wringer washer and hung them out on her multiple crisscrossed clotheslines that spread across our spacious back yard. Two of our neighbors surreptitiously competed against my mother to see who could get their laundry on the line first. That is, if it were a Monday, Thursday, or Saturday.
If it were Tuesday or Friday, Mother may have already mixed up some white cake batter from scratch in her trusty mixer, baked it in the oven, and let it cool on the kitchen table. The heavenly aroma wafting through the house was sure to wake us up, with the two most fleet-footed children swooping down to claim a beater of chocolate icing.
If it were raining, we siblings would settle in to watch Safari or Tarzan, Captain Kangaroo or Mighty Mouse. If it were rain-free, I’d go outside to ride my bike, roller skate, play outdoor games, or bug the boys who overrran the neighborhood.
Since as early as I can remember, I enjoyed “playing school” and being the teacher. If I could enlist no humans to be my students on a particular day, I would pull out my dolls and place them in a semi-circle around the chalkboard. Preferring a large class, I often included my two stuffed animals, Andy Panda and Boo Boo. Then I would get whatever school book or story book was available and bestow upon them my vast knowledge. I would ask questions, and they would raise their hands before answering them. They would also line up to use the “lavatory” or go to recess. You get the picture.
I also loved “playing house,” pretending to be a mommy to my little brood. In addition to my dolls, we girls had a cradle, stroller, baby buggy, a set of doll cups and dishes, and some homemade accessories.
In Part 1, “Hey, Boomer Girls, Remember Your Baby Dolls?” I discussed the most popular dolls among baby boomer girls of the 50’s and 60’s: Betsy Wetsy, Chatty Cathy, Tiny Tears, Thumbelina, Kissy, and Barbie—all fine specimens . . . but most too expensive for my parents’ modest budget. With seven people in the family, they had to shop conservatively at Christmas and birthdays.
They still managed a nice pile of toys under the Christmas tree for each child, and seldom did we kids feel deprived. Unable to sleep one more wink, we would vault out of bed at 6:00 on Christmas morning and breathlessy perch ourselves at the top of the stairs, waiting for the green light to barrel down them and dive into our tower of toys. There was always a baby doll for me every year until I was at least in third grade.
There is definitive proof that I adored my dolls even if they weren’t featured in TV commercials or the Sears Roebuck catalog: I still have five of them, my most precious, 55 years later! They sit atop a tall dresser in my bedroom, and it just so happens sometimes that my doll collection is the first thing I see when I open my eyes in the morning.
Here are the first dolls that I can remember. I am assuming that one was mine and one was my sister Shirley’s. We don’t remember their names, and we do not know what happened to them. I believe it was the Christmas of 1954 when I was 3 years old. Did you have this type of doll?
This photo was also taken the Christmas of 1954. There are no dolls in the photo, but we got some dandy doll dishes. To the left was Shirley’s dollhouse.
I believe this is a 1955 Christmas photo. From left to right: Shirley, Billy, Eddie, and me. My sister Sandy was 7 months old at the time and probably taking a nap! Once again Shirley and I received baby dolls. I was too young to remember that one, and I didn’t keep her. Enlarge and see if you can identify these dolls for me.
My oldest doll, who may have been manufactured in the 1940’s, was a hand-me-down from Shirley. It is so old-fashioned that its joints don’t even bend, so I had to prop it up in front of something if I wanted it to sit. Shirley had originally named the doll Cathy, but I decided that my sparse collection needed a boy, especially for the classroom. I renamed him “Dale Elroy” after my neighbor Dale and Dale Long of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I gave him the middle name Elroy in honor of Dale’s teammate Elroy Face, who lived a half mile away from us. When I got older, I wanted him to have a classier name, so I renamed him again, choosing “Robbie Paul.” To this day, my sisters and I call him “Robbie Paul Dale Elroy Cathy.” To this day, I still have him. The sailor suit is not his original outfit.
I mentioned in Part 1 that I actually did own one doll from the list of the most popular of the era. My one noteworthy doll is . . . Betsy Wetsy, my only drink and wet doll. There are scratches and a “scab” on her cheek, and her eyes are out of whack, but that’s because of years of mommy love . . . oh, and general mishaps, very possibly at the hands of my two brothers or some neighborhood boys. I’m considering taking her to the doll hospital in Pittsburgh for some “plastic surgery.”
In the mid-fifties, Betsy and her layette sold for around $5.95. Using an online inflation calculator, I determined that $5.95 in 1957 dollars is equivalent to $50.36 today. No wonder my parents only bought me one of the top tier dolls of the era. They’d have to spend the same on dolls for my two sisters as well. Oh, wait a minute. Betsy Wetsy was a gift from Santa Claus. That explains it.
←My very own Betsy in her original dress albeit no longer vibrant yellow with fluffy lace
Betsy in a stylish 1980’s outfit→
I also have Baby Ruthie, a Horsman doll. Back in 1865, Edward Horsman opened a toy company in New York City and became a leader in the toy industry. Horsman’s Ruthie doll dates back to the 1950’s, my young childhood years. She was my first doll to sport realistic hair instead of the common vinyl or rubber variety. Here she is looking fashionable in her Scottish outfit: a white dress, brown and red plaid coat, and matching tam.
Then there is Faye, the identical twin to my sister Sandy’s doll Kay. She had no noteworthy features, but she was my only doll to to have multiple outfits, a wardrobe fit for a Hollywood celebrity as far as I was concerned. I still have some pieces though they are not in good condition. Here she is in her nearly pristine pajamas. Notice that most of her hair is missing. A few years ago, I bought her a wig, which has done wonders for her self-image.
Saving the best for last, I give you Gloria, a Christmas gift right out of the Spiegel catalog from my grandparents in 1959. It was love at first sight. My largest doll by far at twenty inches, Gloria became my best inanimate friend in all the world. She was to me what Linus’s blanket is to him, except that I didn’t drag her all over the neighborhood with my thumb stuck in my mouth. However, she comforted me through my bouts with mumps and chicken pox, stayed by my side at the hospital through my tonsillectomy travails, and acted as confidante to all my innermost secrets.
Even my two brothers knew that baby doll by name and still do 50+ years later. She took a lot of abuse from those two, but like a Timex watch, she took a lickin’ but kept on tickin’.
Gloria went to bed with me, sometimes sat at the table with me, and followed me inside and outside. Within a few years, her sparkling dress had lost its luster and developed rips. I don’t know if I took notice, but my mother did. One Christmas morning, I rushed down the stairs to open my gifts, and there was Gloria, sitting on the top of my presents in a brand new floral dress that my mother had sewn by hand! She must have pulled it off while I was at school. I believe that was my best Christmas surprise ever. (But I still have the original dress.)
Due to her lofty status in the household, she saw a lot of action, so over the years, my beloved Gloria descended into quite a state of disrepair. A patch of eyelashes was missing, one eye was slightly sunken in, and a crack had developed in the back of her neck. She had two missing fingers and one that had been reattached with contact cement, injuries sustained when she “accidentally” kicked my sister Shirley on the forehead and was subsequently thrown out the front door into the snow.
Then there was her left arm. It had fallen off, and when my dad’s well-intentioned attempts to reattach it with electrical tape and an olive jar lid failed, I was forced to just stuff the arm down the hole until only her hand was visible. It didn’t matter that Gloria was a candidate for the land of the misfit toys; she would always and forever be my baby.
Here is Gloria 2015 in her third outfit. On her right wrist is a plastic pop-bead bracelet that she’s been wearing for 55 years. On her left wrist is a bracelet I made many years ago as well. It is made from buttons strung on a white string. In front of Gloria is the treasured dress that my mother made her by hand many years ago.
Gloria now leads a rather sedentary life on the top of my dresser along with Robby Paul Dale Elroy Cathy, Betsy Wetsy, Ruthie, and Faye. I have retired my chalkboard, my little students having long ago graduated from high school and gone on to illustrious careers, thanks to my tutoring expertise.
I may never grow up.
Did you own any of these dolls in the 50’s or 60’s? Do you still have any of your childhood dolls? Can you give me any further information on the history of my dolls?
Next up: Dolls that any boomer girl could afford—paper dolls!
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.