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My dad was the grocery shopper in our house, probably because there were five kids, and he thought it was a heck of a lot more fun to shop for cauliflower and Ivory Flakes than to mind a houseful of kids. I’m sure that shopping for groceries was like taking a mini vacation. It can be exasperating enough to shop with one or two kids who want to grab Maypo from the shelves and eat the animal crackers in the shopping cart. And that’s before they start getting bored and cranky. Can you imagine taking five kids grocery shopping?
Thoughtful husband that he was, whenever my dad shopped at Kroger or the A & P, he would buy women’s magazines from racks at the checkout line for my mother. Once a month, he brought home a new issue of Family Circle Magazine, which my mother enjoyed for its recipes, housekeeping tips, and other women’s interests.
Sold exclusively at A & P, Woman’s Day was another of her favorites. It featured articles on childcare, crafts, cooking, home decorating, and more. According to Wikipedia, a mid-1960’s ad stated, “Woman’s Day—more than any other magazine—is a trusted advisor in the day in day out work that’s a housewife’s chosen profession. That’s our profession. And we’re proud of it.”
Occasionally, my mother would acquire Good Housekeeping or Better Homes and Gardens as well.
As a child in the 50’s and 60’s, I didn’t take a lot of interest in those women’s magazines though I looked at the pictures from time to time, and they surely came in handy for my fourth grade science booklet when I had to cut and paste pictures of foods and categorize them under the four food groups.
But . . . if your mother (or dad) bought McCall’s magazines from 1951 to 1995, you were in business. The paper doll business, that is. Sure, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, you might have had Betsy Wetsy or Chatty Cathy or Barbie, but your childhood was incomplete if you did not experience paper dolls. And it surely was an inexpensive indulgence.
The famous Betsy McCall, first presented as a charming five-year-old, came to life in the May 1951 issue of McCall’s. Each issue came with a full page spread that included Betsy herself plus several fashionable themed outfits that matched her travel destination or special event. Over the next few years, Betsy took short trips to the beach, the country, the zoo. She went to weddings, picnics, and the circus. She traveled to Colonial Williamsburg, New York to see a flower show, West Point for her uncle’s graduation, and she even took the California Zephyr through the western states. She celebrated the holidays—Valentine’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas. She even came with Halloween costumes.
Additionally, every month Betsy would be featured with a story of some humorous or noteworthy event in her live. And she would always have the appropriate attire for each event.
Her dresses were divine. I wished I had half of her wardrobe. I could have worn a different adorable dress to school every day of the year!
The tediously long span of time between publications always seemed to be much longer than one month. The arrival of the magazine made for a red-letter day, to be sure. As soon as my dad got home from the A & P and pulled that McCall’s magazine out of the grocery bag, I’d set to work with my scissors, carefully cutting out Betsy and the new additions to her wardrobe while dreaming that I was traveling along with the McCall family on those trips. That little paper girl really got around, and I was envious!
Betsy McCall was at her height in the 1950’s and 1960’s. She was as enthralling to me as she was to my sister Shirley, four years my senior, and my sister Sandy, four years my junior. Shirley reminisced, “I remember getting excited every time a new magazine came to our house so I could play with the paper dolls, and I’m a few years older than you. So, they must have been coming to our house since the early 50’s.”
One good thing about each of us sisters being four years apart is that we never had to fight over Betsy McCall—no hair pulling, no tattletaling to Mother, no sneaking around into underwear drawers to find where sister had hidden the paper dolls. And no rationing: “Shirley gets the January issue, Karen gets the February issue, and Sandy gets the March issue.”
Not only did we baby boomers delight in Betsy McCall and her paper fashions, but she also introduced herself to the Generation X-ers until her last fling in September, 1995.
A few years ago, I became so nostalgic for Betsy McCall paper dolls that I bought this 1957 McCall’s magazine page from e-Bay for $5.00.
Eventually, I outgrew the young Betsy McCall, passing the paper doll tradition on to my sister Sandy. But my attachment to paper dolls did not end there. I began making young adult paper dolls and outfits. Well, actually, the dolls were made of cardboard. I’d hone my craft indoors and outdoors, often sitting on a chaise lounge under a backyard plum tree. I’d sit there with a clothing catalog—perhaps Montgomery Ward, Sears, or Gimbels—trying to copy the trendy 1960’s styles.
Having invested so much time and pride in my creations, I could not bear to submit them to the burn barrel in the field behind our back yard. So, as with many of my childhood toys, games, and crafts, I still have my paper dolls today. Here are “Lisa” and “Laurie” and their in vogue wardrobes. Do any of these styles look vaguely familiar from your high school, college, or young adult days?
My paper dolls inspired my daughter Leslie to make her own when she a was a young girl in the 1980’s. Consisting of two boys and two girls, her paper dolls were quite small. Here they are with a few of their outfits:
Paper dolls have lost their allure since Leslie was a little girl, perhaps because the toy market has become saturated with a superabundance of dolls and doll accessories as well as a profusion of other toys, many technologically cutting-edge, for young girls.
Still, if you wish to introduce your children or grandchildren to the wonderful world of paper dolls, Amazon sells several sets, the ultimate being the Melissa and Doug Dress-Up Set, which uses magnetic wooden pieces, so much sturdier than paper or cardboard.
Pssst. Just between you and me, if you want to buy some paper dolls for yourself, there are retro sets for that 50’s or 60’s little girl romping inside you. One that looks quite appealing is the Shirley Temple Paper Dolls and Dresses collection, also available from Amazon.
Whether 1950’s girls or 1960’s girls, city girls or country girls, low income girls or upper income girls, girly girls or tomboys, we all delighted in our 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.