Formanek-Brunell, Miriam. (1992) “Sugar and Spite: The Politics of Doll Play in Nineteenth Century America”


The author challenges the popular understanding that dolls limited girls’ development and restricted them to domestic and maternal responsibilities. Her studies of girls’ diaries, magazines, advice manuals and other primary sources finds that girls appropriated dolls and used them for purposes other than practicing their mothering skills.


In the earlier part of the century girls made their own dolls and doll clothes to practice their sewing skills.  In the mid- to late- nineteenth century dolls began to be commercially available and affordable for the middle class.  This chapter provides a useful description of how girls shopped for dolls in-store or ordered them from mail order catalogs (in rural areas).  Girls often received dolls as gifts from their mothers and fathers for Christmas and Birthdays towards the end of the century (pg 114).  Formanek-Brunell provides descriptions of toy stores and toy sections within department stores/shopping palaces (pg. 112-113).  Some dolls were so expensive that they were displayed as decorations or ornaments and were not played with.

“girls in the Gilded Age were encouraged to play with their china and bisque dolls in ways that increasingly exhibited the conspicuous display of consumer goods and social status” (pg. 124).

Girls played out commons social rituals with their dolls such as tea parties, visiting friends, and funerals.  The author finds that dolls were also popular amongst boys but they tended to play police, doctor and preacher with their dolls instead of house.  Evidence shows some girls were doll-haters and that many girls punished their dolls by spanking, torturing and treating them roughly or “killed” them by breaking their heads.  Girls were not always submissive/  When boys teased or threatened to take their dolls, girls (and their dolls) fought back aggressively instead of passively retreating.  Girls generally preferred to play with soft rag dolls instead of more expensive one and even preferred black dolls over white ones.


Formanek-Brunell studies of girls’ diaries, magazines, advice manuals and other historical primary sources.


The evidence still demonstrates that the large majority of children used dolls to practice domestic skills and that only a few resisted/appropriated them for their own purposes.


Demonstrates children’s ability to resist and re-appropriate consumer culture


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