Oh, You Beautiful Doll
The doll has been a mainstay of child’s play for centuries, whether it was a stick covered in a garment of leaves or a rag doll wearing a gown of patchwork. When it became more common for children to actually have playtime instead of working in the fields and helping support the family, dolls became more decorative, with distinct identities and highly prized.
As in so many things about everyday life, the Victorians took dolls and toys over the top starting in the 1830s, and the modern doll was born.
A Collector’s Choice
Today’s collectors are often drawn to the hand-painted china heads and lavish dresses of the Victorian doll. Many of those dolls come complete with elaborate wardrobes and pieces of furniture. That is the core of Crystal Lake resident Susen Berg’s doll collection begun in her adulthood.
Her treasured dolls of the 1950s were given away based on the idea that she had outgrown them.
But true doll lovers never outgrow their small friends, smiling forever in their organdy bonnets and posed beguilingly on a velvet chair. Only one or two of her originals remained, but they were not the beginning of the serious collecting that was to come.
The beginning was a doll was found in an antiques shop in Maine on a family vacation. Berg’s daughter Kimberly was only seven and was drawn to the doll, but Berg herself was swept away. Everything about the doll’s costume and hair was simply exquisite.
Berg could hardly believe her husband’s words when he said, “We will take her!”
The shopkeeper smiled and said, “This will be the most expensive doll you ever buy because you will never be able to stop.
“You will always find another to love, to take your breath away.”
That was over 30 years ago and so it has been. Anna Steina is the heart of the collection and is always on display. A reflection of Berg’s Swedish heritage, the doll is almost regarded as a real person by family members, including new generations that come along and hear the tales of how Anna Steina came to live in the home.
“I love all 200 or so of my dolls,” Berg said, smiling fondly. “They each have something unique, some special detail. It could be what they are wearing, or who gave me the doll, or how I found the doll. It doesn’t matter what their financial worth is either. They are all highly cherished.
“Even so, I let my grandchildren carry them and walk around. I want them to love them, too, and to learn how to handle them.
“They know they have to be careful, but I also don’t want to send the message that possessions are more important than people. Besides, my granddaughter, Mya, has a favorite in my beloved old Toni doll (one of the few to survive Berg’s childhood), and I really enjoy that.”
The Toni doll was popular in the early days of the Toni Home Permanent and the doll’s hair could be permed. Berg permed it so much that eventually the doll needed a new wig. “That was it,” she said. “I just played with my dolls so much and with such dedication I wore them out. But I got so much pleasure out of them, too.”
Generations of Collectors
The tradition continued when Berg’s daughter, Kimberly was growing up. Kimberly and her friends were avid doll mothers, too, and they played for hours, hosting doll tea parties, adventures and more. To this day their childhood doll collections bring special memories and are intact.
Berg was also fortunate to inherit a unique doll collection from elderly cousins in her father’s family.
“I was the only girl, and I was fascinated with their collection; some handmade, some from across the world, all unusual,” she said. “Norma and Albert were the cousins and their collection was almost sociological rather than a collection of toys. I don’t often set them out, but the dolls certainly always take me right back to being 10 years old and my fascination with these gentle, rather eccentric, relatives.”
In addition to vintage, antique, German and Lenci dolls, the French Bebe dolls and other rare foreign fashion dolls, there is a large collection by modern doll maker R. John Wright of Vermont.
These dolls are signed and numbered and displayed in built-in glass cases. The dolls are not considered toys on display, but equivalent works of art beside paintings and antiques. Examples of American folk art, or the pride of generations 100 years ago, the doll collection is lovingly tended and admired for its beauty, but also gives a sweep of whimsy to the rest of the home.
“I collect a lot of things besides dolls, and they all have particular meaning for me, but I love the dolls the best because they span my entire lifetime,” Berg said. “I was definitely one of those kids that believed they came to life after I fell asleep. And now, in my imagination, I still do.”