A Brief History of Paper Dolls
The paper dolls shown here, from the Wilmette Historical Museum collections, belonged to several local Wilmette families and reflect styles of dolls ranging from the early 1900s to the 1980s. The earliest dolls shown were played with by Helen Butz (1899-1968), who grew up at 802 Lake Ave. The Steffen, Ramm, and Wheelock families are also represented here. Although the Museum no longer adds paper dolls to its collection, these dolls, which were given to us decades ago, reflect the long history of these delicate objects in the history of American childhood.
Paper dolls are some of the simplest and most accessible toys ever created. Closely aligned with fashion plates, paper dolls have had a lasting appeal for over 200 years. The first commercially manufactured paper dolls originated in England in the early 1800s, and two of the earliest printed sets were “The History of Little Fanny” and "The History and Adventures of Little Henry."
Magazines for women and young ladies emerged as a perfect vehicle for distributing paper dolls in the early 1900s. The Ladies' Home Journal included the "Lettie Lane Paper Family" to encourage young readers to take an interest in their mothers' magazines, and perhaps to foster future subscribers (and fashionistas). Our own collection includes a number of charming pieces from the "Lettie Lane" family.
Marketers quickly found that paper dolls were a perfect venue for advertising, even when the products were unrelated or inappropriate, such as coffee, bread, and even tobacco. In the 1940s and 1950s, movie and television tie-ins along with celebrity paper dolls appeared on the scene. Though the look of the dolls themselves changed, fashion and style was often still the focus, as you'll see when you browse through our collection.