Charleston Black Domestic Doll


Charleston domestic, circa 1880-1890.
Charleston domestic, circa 1880-1890.

Fashionably dressed in a costume with regional characteristics, this black cloth doll has excellent needle sculpted features. Her original clothing is sewn in place and she carries a cloth wrapped bundle on her head. Her attire indicates that she is a southern domestic household servant. The treatment of the skirt, bundle carried on her head, and the separate pocket at her waist, are telling features. The skirt is tied up around her hips to prevent the bottom edge from touching the ground.  This creates a puffed, bustle-like appearance on the back of the skirt. The front is gathered up as well, but not as prominently puffed. Her skirt treatment, bundle carried on the head, and separate pocket are typically southern features.

She is beautifully executed and proportioned. The maker used black sateen cotton to construct the body and head. Her nose is applied. The ears were sculpted by stitching the edge of the head to form the shape. A chin is formed by pinching the fabric with thread. Hands and feet are stitched to define toes and fingers. The thumb is separate, and the big toe is prominent. Hair was made from a woolly/wiry material and forms two plaits showing below her bandanna.

Her costume is composed of a blouse, skirt, apron, fischu and underwear. Under garments are lace trimmed glazed cotton, knee length pantaloons and slip. The fitted shirred front bodice has a high stiff standing collar, with slender sleeves and fullness at the upper arm and shoulder. Original tapes are tied around the hips to hold the skirt in place.

The bustle was still a feature during the 1880’s, but disappeared by the 1890’s. French fashion plates between 1880 and 1890 feature a back  tournure for skirts, lace fichus with pleated and gathered front blouses, and decorative black ribbon bows. Her skirt has a gathered ruffle around the hem and is longer in the back than the front. Buttonhole stitching finishes the edge of the key/change pocket secured to the apron at her waist. The clothing and fabrics are true to the period.

The evolution of black imagery in American genre paintings and handmade dolls did not progress forward with consistency. Post Civil War representations of blacks in the form of handmade dolls were not humorously contrived until the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. At the turn of the century, stereo-typed Sambo and Zip Coon images paraded across vaudeville stages and were illustrated in bright, humorous lithographed advertising pieces. These portrayals obviously influenced doll making.

This realistic black doll predates those images. Compare the doll’s costume with the raggedy clothing worn by blacks illustrated in William Aiken Walker paintings of plantation workers and share cropper’s. By contrast, her clothing is finer than clothing worn by Walker’s figures. He painted nostalgic images of poorly dressed black adults and children. The market participants illustrated in Hoffman’s painting appear to come from a financially better situation than the figures illustrated by Walker.

  • Maker: Unidentified.
  • Origin: Southeast (Probably Charleston, South Carolina or Savannah, Georgia).
  • Circa: 1880-1890.
  • Materials: Cloth.
  • Size: 13” H.