Sunday, December 13, 2009

Antique Christmas Doll

It's always a happy event finding any great antique toy, but finding one in unplayed with condition and with provenance is especially thrilling. This doll has all these features, and was one of my happiest discoveries ever.

The 14 inch German made Armand Marseille bisque head doll is their common 390 model, but she's made uncommon by her condition, which is factory mint. She wears her original dress and undergarments (still tacked to her papier-mache and composition body), shoes, and bonnet with never-untied ribbons. And she comes in her original box, which even has its waxed paper lining.

As if this wasn't enough wonderfulness, she also comes with her provenance. The original owner's name, Nona Douglass, is pencilled on the box lid, and inside the box is a Christmas postcard to Nona dated 1915, bearing this message:
"December 18 1915: Dear Nona: How are you getting along. I suppose you are a nice big girl. I hope Santa brings you a nice doll. Tell mama I will send her a card later and a letter. I have been very sick. I haven't been out since 8 of Oct. I am lots better but can't go down street yet. I can't buy any presents this year. With love to all and a Merry Xmas, Mrs. Barry."
I'm guessing Mrs. Barry did indeed manage to do her Christmas shopping, sent this doll for Nona, and it was secreted away until Christmas.

As much as I love this doll and the condition it's in, I do wonder why it was never played with. Was it only brought out during the holidays, with its play carefully supervised? Was Nona an early version of today's MIB Barbie fanatics? Or was she an Edwardian-era tomboy, fiercely resistant to all toys domestic?
Sadly, the usual reason antique toys are found in mint condition is because their young owners met with untimely ends, not an uncommon occurrence in days gone by...but I prefer to think of Nona tucking this doll in the attic, before heading off to the sandlot to play baseball with the boys.


  1. What a wonderful find. I wonder if perhaps Mrs Barry passed away (she does mention being very sick) before sending this doll off to Nona... Like you I suspect a sad tale in this little beauty's history, however she now has an appreciative home in time for this Christmas :)

  2. Yes, I've wondered about poor Mrs. Barry too. This gift and card date from just before the big Spanish Influenza outbreak in the States, so maybe that played a role?

  3. One of my hobbies is genealogy, it would be an interesting project to do some research on Mrs Barry and Nona Douglass, I don't have time at the moment (not only Christmas coming up but also preparing to go 'home' to New Zealand shortly afterwards), however I'll put this in my 'intriguing and worth a look' basket :) I'll keep you posted of any 'developments' - just don't hold your breath! :)

  4. Oh, that would be fantastic! I've been longing to know whatever happened to little Nona and Mrs. Barry ever since I found this doll. If we find out, I just hope it isn't sad...
    Thanks in advance, and good luck!

  5. I've been looking at the back of the postcard again, what do you make of the placename before the date? That is our greatest clue but it's a bit difficult to decipher. Any ideas?

  6. Yes, I've wondered where that is, too! It looks like "Caroa." ??? Thanks for your genealogical detective work!

    BTW, I updated the Victorian trunk pictures yesterday, and you can see everything much better now, I think.

  7. I thought Caroa too but can't find get any 'hits' for such a place in USA on Google :(
    There are a couple of birth records for a Nona Douglass that could 'fit', in the 1910 census there is one born in 1891 (living in Hamilton, Tennessee in 1910) and another in 1897 (living in Jackson, Illinois in 1910). I can't do much more on this at the moment without the assistance of a cousin who has a subscription to a genealogy site that I think may give us a lead on Mrs Barry (what a pity we don't have an initial!) but of course I don't want to ask her to do anything this close to Christmas. Intriguingly there are several females with the surname BARRY whose deaths are listed in Cook, Illinois in 1916. I can't get the day and date without a sub to the site, my cousin has one but I'm reluctant to ask her to look it up for me this close to Christmas, but in a little while I will. I'll be sure to get back to you!

    I've had a look at the new trunk pictures, they are great, what a fabulous find.

  8. Hi Norma,

    Wow: such interesting results already!

    I'm inclined to think it's the Illinois one. The doll came from a Michigan antique dealer (not that she couldn't have gotten it from Tennessee, but Illinois is right next door).

    Re: Caroa: could it be the name of an institution or something, instead of a town? I've found old postcards that, for the place from which they were sent, give the name of the asylum where the sender was recuperating (as from tuberulosis or something). And a google search reveals an Anglican religious community called Caroa which appears to have run retreat houses. Perhaps Mrs. Barry was at one of those?? Hmm...

    The mystery continues!

    Have a very happy Christmas!

  9. I've had another thought about those dates, those Nona's would be too old to be receiving a doll in 1915 don't you think? I don't know why that penny didn't drop before (rule no 1 - don't research with a tired brain!!). Back to the drawing board I think.

    I have also wondered if Caroa could be the name of a house.

  10. I've got bad news Tracy, the cousin I mentioned hasn't renewed her subscription to the genealogy site that includes access to US databases. Seems she is destined to remain a mystery a little longer. I won't forget her tho and hopefully some time in the future we'll crack the mystery.

    I took another look at the Armand Marseille doll of my late mum's when I was in NZ, she's a 390 also (there is also the number 2 1/2 - between the initials A M - stamped on the back of the head - what does that mean?).

  11. Hi Norma,

    That's a bummer, but maybe it's for the best: I have an awful suspicion that something tragic befell little Nona, and perhaps it's better not to know...I can't help but be curious, though!

    Regarding your doll's markings: the initials are the company's, Armand Marseille, and the number between them signifies the size of the doll. These size numbers tend to not be very meaningful to us today though, as they can't really be generalized across companies, and they don't translate to measurement systems we use. Every company seems to have its own "code" or shorthand for how they labelled doll sizes.

  12. What an amazing and very interesting conversation! I was completely intrigued and hoped that I, too, would find out what happened to "Nona".