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December 29, 2009

Marie Antoinette: 18th Century Doll Collector?

Today author Christine Trent has been kind enough to share a very interesting post with us about 18th Century dolls!  I have just finished her book The Queen's Dollmaker and will post more on that later! Stay tuned for more details on the book and enjoy this fascinating post by Christine!


So we know all about the fascinating and complex Marie Antoinette, right? She loved fashion, spent extravagantly, was devoted to her family, and stood bravely in the face of imprisonment and execution. But did you also know she loved dolls?

In the 18th century, dolls were created for two different reasons. First, as you might guess, they were playthings. Such toys might be made of rags, corn husks, or other simple materials. As you can imagine, most of these are lost to the ravages of time.

But if you were wealthy enough, dolls meant something else to you: receiving a doll was akin to sitting in the front row at a fashion show. A tiny replica of whatever the modiste proposed to make for you was placed on the doll. In this way, you could see and touch the fabric up close, although it probably wasn’t the greatest representation of how it would look on a human form.


Dolls of the 18th century were carved of hardwood with their facial features painted on. Nicer dolls might have glass eyes inserted into carved eye sockets. Hair was fashioned into a wig from flax or wool and glued down. Some dolls were fairly rough jobs, others were very meticulously crafted. But for a fashion doll, the emphasis was always on the couture. Marie Antoinette had an entire set of dolls presented to her as a means for selecting her wedding trousseau. Doesn’t that sound fun? I can imagine her as a young teenager, lining them up in a window sill, and deciding which ones pleased her enough that she would want their dresses recreated for her.

Once she’d left her native Austria for France, Marie Antoinette sent dolls to her sister, Maria Carolina, who herself became Queen of Naples. Maria Carolina liked to paint, and in 1760 created a scene of the Austrian royal family. Notice that her sister, Marie Antoinette, is holding up a doll in the painting.

We frequently refer to these wooden dolls of the 18th century as “Queen Anne dolls,” because Queen Anne (Stuart, not Boleyn!) loved them and frequently gave them away as gifts. I was thrilled when I visited Lullingstone Castle in Kent, England, in 2006. They had recently discovered a Queen Anne doll that had been stored in a trunk somewhere in an attic. The doll was in such good shape that you could tell that her dress had been a lovely shade of pink. The owner of the castle gave me a copy of the V&A Museum’s provenance report on the doll, which indicated they believed that the doll may have actually been a gift from Queen Anne to one of the Hart-Dyke family members. If only I had been allowed to photograph the precious doll!

It is interesting to note that the wax, china, and composition dolls that we think of today as “antique” dolls did not come into production until the early 19th century, so Marie Antoinette would have never known anything but wooden dolls. Handcrafted dolls such as the one Marie Antoinette would have owned are very unusual today, but there are still doll artists out there who do this painstaking work. Do you have an old doll that is well loved or very collectible?

Visit Christine's website here

6 comments

  1. Very interesting, thank you for enlightening us!

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  2. This is a great post, and now I'll use the event of Marie Antoinette receiving a series of dolls so that she could choose her wedding dress (Christine, did she also receive dolls as samples of the entire trousseau?) in my Marie Antoinette novel. What a wonderful image!

    I have several old (though not antique) dolls that are very well loved. I also have a collectible collection of literary heroine dolls, but those are only from the early 1980s.

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  3. Heather and Tulip, thanks for visiting. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

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  4. Yes, indeed, Leslie, Marie Antoinette received dolls for her entire trousseau. I can't wait until your book comes out so that I can read another perspective of the queen and her dolls!

    Thanks for visiting.

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  5. Take a look at the book Les Petites Dames du Mode by John Burbidge for more on dolls and fashion.

    Amazon says: For years, doll and costume enthusiasts alike have seized every opportunity to view the authentic period ensembles created by John Burgidge, former bridal designer for the prestigious Priscilla of Boston. Titled Les Petites Dames de Mode ("the little ladies of fashion"), this collection of Victorian and Edwardian gowns worn by 29-inch mannequins has been displayed in prominent museums throughout the country and was the subject of a video produced in the 1990s. Not until now has the entire collection been presented in print. Featuring full-page photos of each gown, with close-up views of important details, accompanied by the designer's extensive notes on the creation of each piece, this book will be appreciated and treasured by doll collectors, costume historians, clothing designers and fashion aficionados.

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