Little girls in the mountains enjoyed playing with paper dolls during long, winter afternoons, especially before the advent of television. As light snow settled on hilltop trees, I remember sitting on the flowery linoleum floor beside the wood heater.
The cheery, ever-blooming-rose pattern on the flooring spread across the entire living room. Those summer roses and glowing-hot fires in Granny’s 1895 farmhouse contradicted the cold, outside temperature and the coming snow.
Being warm and quite content, I focused attention on the intricate art of using scissors to neatly trim the paper costumes. Such careful effort was essential, so the elaborate gowns would look good on the cardboard dolls.
Unlike real girls and ladies that I knew, the glamorous people featured in cut-out books wore high-fashion clothes every day — and every evening. The era of the late 1940s and early 1950s is included in “The Golden Age of Paper Dolls,” so I had many delightful choices.
Their enduring popularity was partly a result of advancing print technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Manufacturing costs decreased at approximately the same time brighter, color-copy techniques increased. Thus, beautifully colored (but inexpensive) paper dolls became available.
The booklets featured movie stars, models and beautiful brides with dozens of interchangeable paper gowns and dresses in every color of the rainbow. Their painted-on hair was luxuriantly black or golden blonde with lipstick-red lips, bright eyes and artistically long eyelashes.
Admittedly, they were two-dimensional cardboard. But with a little imagination, the dolls enjoyed changing into colorful play outfits after attending make-believe dances and parties. Their stylish winter coats — with matching red hats and muffs — were still waiting to be cut from the latest paper-doll book.
A particular favorite was the cardboard bride who wore a lavish pink gown. Her matron of honor, bridesmaid and flower girl were also dressed in flowing pink costumes. Of course, I had never seen a pink wedding gown, but no one else had, either. (It was likely shown in pastels to make the booklet more attractive.) Pink was my favorite color, so I spent many happy hours clipping paper gowns and pretend pink bouquets.
Known as “America’s Sweetheart,” the child star Shirley Temple began her acting career at age three. She sang and danced through dozens of movies while girls her age were still in elementary school. Because of continued popularity, her paper dolls were treasured and reprinted after the real curly-haired girl had grown up.
My cardboard Shirley never outgrew fancy dresses or sailor suits — and she certainly never wore hand-me-downs like children I knew.
Pages of elaborate, movie costumes could be cut and folded around her adorable likeness. Posing on the rosy floor, even after multiple outfit changes, Shirley was always smiling and happy. And she certainly brought joy and happiness to me on long winter afternoons.
Even in those days, paper dolls were considered old-fashioned, having been manufactured since the early 1800s. However, along with Shirley Temple, they had come into their own during the Great Depression.
Because paper dolls were cheaper than real dolls, mothers could stretch limited resources further. Since the only other requirement was an old pair of dull scissors, paper fashions offered fun and imaginative flights-of-fancy during hard times.
Through the 1950s, the colorful booklets continued to be a popular staple at F. W. Woolworth’s 5 & 10 Cent Store on Hendersonville’s Main Street. Several generations of young girls anticipated the latest high-fashion issues.
It is thought that cardboard dolls were intentionally designed to reflect the expectations and aspirations of girls and women in a particular era. Like most toys, they encouraged girls in the fantasies of role playing, though those roles were defined by the wardrobe choices.
Over time, the costumes began to depict career women as well as “ladies of leisure” who spent their days and evenings at social events. For younger girls the appeal was the extensive wardrobes and possibilities of life choices that may not have been available to women in previous generations.
Knowingly or unknowingly, a lady made statements about herself and her sense of identity through the clothing styles she chose. Ordinary people wore clothes, but not everybody wore fashion, so playing with paper dolls gave girls a safe view into other women’s lives.
Brides with numerous bridesmaids (like the pink-gowned wedding party) remained popular since the concept of a dream wedding was consistent over time. Some wedding cut-out books, however, neglected to include the groom and his attendants.
Rather than an oversight, companies may have thought dark suits and tuxedos just weren’t colorful enough to take up so many pages. After all, each beautifully gowned bridesmaid required an extra groomsman in the make-believe paper-doll wedding.
Sitting beside the glowing wood heater on winter afternoons, my cardboard dolls and I arranged those large, elaborate weddings. And we enjoyed trips to the beach in stylish bathing costumes. To prevent imaginary sunburn, the dolls donned matching terrycloth coverups and wide, floppy hats. Quite conveniently, we’d brought then along in coordinating beach bags.
Tiring of the sand and surf, we attended lavish balls while wearing evening gowns that glittered in the starlight. The enchanting paper dolls whirled and waltzed across the rose-patterned floor; their dance steps seemed to follow strains of orchestra music I’d heard on the battery radio.
While I played so happily, child star Shirley Temple never grew up. Her curly hair stayed in curls, and her ruffled dresses fit perfectly. And pages of gowns waited to be cut, with more adventure stories to be imagined.
Meanwhile, on my grandparents’ secluded mountain, the afternoon snow continued to fall, softly, steadily and silently.
Back from the dolls’ pretend day at the beach, I watched from the window as snow mounded over the boxwoods. They looked like huge coconut cakes covered with Granny’s tasty 7-Minute Icing, but I was glad to be inside by the warm fire.
The concept of imagination in child development remains as important today as it was decades ago. Actually, some modern amusements are thought to hinder children from using natural creative skills. It is interesting to realize that old-fashioned playthings, favored during the Great Depression, were so beneficial.
Many of my treasured childhood paper dolls are displayed at Mountain Heritage Center Museum on the campus of Western Carolina University. Along with other donated antiques, they are used in educational programs to familiarize modern children with the past.
Today, I live on Bear Mountain, still enjoy wood fires on snowy afternoons — and collect sets of vintage paper dolls. Decades later, cardboard dolls with glamorous paper wardrobes have not lost their fascinating appeal. And I find that other older ladies remember and enjoy the challenging fun activity, as well. Carefully trimming the dolls and dressing them in colorful gowns is still entertaining.
Ask an older lady friend or relative if she recalls playing with paper dolls as a young girl. She may remember their fashionable clothing styles — as well as imaginative stories she made up about their adventures.
Think about other toys you especially enjoyed that would be considered outdated today.
Looking back to snowy winter afternoons in your childhood, envision the solitude, the tranquility and the pleasures of simple amusements and imagination.