Thursday, May 21, 2015

There's Something Very Endearing About Wishbone Dolls

Image Courtesy of Ebay by abclovell

Before doing my research for faceless dolls I would never have thought about making a doll from a turkey or chicken wishbone.  However, knowing the history of the colonial period and the pioneers and using materials on hand I shouldn't be surprised as to wishbones being used to make playthings.

Some of these dolls were faceless, but most had faces.  Even though they didn't fit the criteria for my "faceless" dolls research I was intriqued and had to know more.  Here's what I found:

They were also known as pen wiper dolls that were used about 150 years ago.  In Colonial times people kept them on their desks to wipe away extra ink from their pens.

The wishbone doll shown in the picture above is for sale on Ebay by abclovell and can be found here.

Page 205 of The Doll Book written in 1908 by Laura B. Starr under the Homemade Dolls chapter talks about the merry-thought doll which is made out of wishbones from turkeys, chickens, ducks, and birds - with all the different sizes being perfect for different family members.

According to the chapter, "The merry-thought doll affords no end of pleasure and amusement.  The wishbones from turkeys, chickens, ducks and birds offer various sizes for a large family of these dolls.  The head may be molded of ceiling wax, black, white or colored; here is a chance to show skill and artistic ability.  Again a head may be penciled on the flat surface of a cork and each end of the wishbone thrust into or glued on to the other pieces to give the manikin necessary stability, and make it flat-footed enough to let it stand alone unaided."

"Doll pen wipers are made from a wishbone and dressed like a ballet dancer.  They usually wear a card around the neck upon which is printed the following epitaph:  

One I was a wishbone and grew upon a hen,
Now I am a little slave and made to wipe your pen."

From my research I discovered that most wishbone dolls had cork heads, walnut heads, cloth heads, or wax heads.  Most had faces, but there were some that didn't so I gave some thought to including them in my The History of Faceless Dolls but decided not to.  

So I decided to write this blog post about them - mainly because I find the wishbone dolls so charming.

If you would like to see a picture of fourteen folk art wishbone dolls please click here.

Image Courtesy of  National Museum of Toys & Miniatures

The pen wiper "I'm So Fancy" doll pictured above is from the National Museum of Toys & Miniatures website. According to their website, "We’ve got to hand it to the Victorians: they were recycling and reusing a century before the country had heard of Al Gore or Earth Day! Everyday objects like wishbones, spools and nut shells were all given a new life as fanciful, yet functional art objects. All the rage in the 19th century, this crafty trend of turning trash into tiny treasures resulted in Victorian fancies."

Also, according to their website: "While T/m’s  Victorian fancy doll isn’t exactly winning the beauty contest amongst the dolls in our collection, she certainly gets high marks for functionality and being “green.” Her body consists of a wishbone wrapped in muslin and plaid fabric scraps; and her head is painted cork. Her dress is actually intended to be used as a pen wipe, a desktop necessity in the days of the dip or nib ink pens. The tag pinned to her reads, “Once I was a wishbone, And grew upon a hen. Now I am a ‘Spinster,’ Made to wipe your pen."

According to The Information Please Girls' Almanac By Alice Siegel - Page 148, "Wishbone Dolls - In the late 1800's adults saved the wishbones from turkeys and chickens and made dolls out of them using a piece of cork for the head and sealing wax for the feet. The dolls were dressed in the fashions of the times."

If you would like to see or read more of this article please click here.

Image Courtesy of

I found the wishbone doll that is shown in the picture above on the Liveauctioneers website.

The description says the doll is a black faced doll, circa 1850 with a "ditty" sewn dress.

If you would like to see this doll please click here.

If you want to know how wishbone dolls are made the WikiHow website has a How to Make a Wishbone Doll article. According to the WikiHow website, "Wishbone dolls were made "in the olden days" before folks had all the material things they have today." If you want to read the how-to please click here.

There is a charming parable in The Churchman, Volume 46 from November 1882 - page 528-530 entitled, The Unhappy Wishbone,  about a wishbone "pen wiper" and learning the art of contentment.  It's a charming little story about a wishbone with a cloth face, an old lady and a little girl.  If you would like to read the story please click here.

In the story mentioned above the wishbone is described as a pen-wiper. Of course, I was intrigued by this as I had never heard of a pen-wiper before. Turns out it is a cloth or other material for wiping off or cleaning ink from a pen. Sometimes pen wipes were wishbone dolls - some with cloth heads, some faceless.

 Image Courtesy of

I found the Antique Black Americana Wishbone Doll Pen Wipe Vintage, shown in the picture above on the Antiquesnavigator website. If you would like to see a larger image of this pen wipe please click here.

I ran across a LeRoy Pennysaver & News from November 2013.PDF that had an article entitled, "Save The Wishbone by Lynne Belluscio" that is about wishbones dolls and contains pictures of three of her wishbone dolls with faces.While these wishbone dolls have cloth faces the article is very interesting.  If you would like to read the Save The Wishbone by Lynne Belluscio article please click here.

I also ran across an article in the website entitled, A Little History In Black Dolls that was written by Lini S. Kadaba in  January, 1988.  It is a very interesting article about Barbara A. Whiteman who was giving a presentation  at Lincoln High about the history of black dolls. Two of the dolls that she showed were two tiny little dolls with chicken wishbone legs.  If you would like to read the A Little History In Black Dolls  please click here.

Image Courtesy of  Historic New England

The Pen Wiper Doll shown in the picture above is from the Historic New England website.  According to their website this is a pen wipe from 1900 - 1920.

Description - Black cloth doll with print dress and apron. Red cloth bandana tied on her head. Wearing a printed cotton dress; white cotton apron. Doll has no lower body. 

Credits: Maker unknown, Date 1900-1920 , Early 20th century, Location of origin United States, Material cloth cotton (textile), Object type Toy, Descriptive terms cloth cotton (textile), Doll
dolls slavery, Dimensions 4 3/4 x 3 3/4 (HxW) (inches), Accession Number 1949.952, Credit Line Bequest of Elizabeth R. Vaughan, GUSN 251679

If you would like to read more about this pen wiper please click here.

In Chapter VI Dolls and Doll-Houses of the Home Occupations For Boys and Girls book By Bertha Johnston, Fanny Chapin - Published 1908 we learn how the wishbone dolls were made:

3. Wishbone Doll (Wishbone, sealing-wax, material for trousers)

Clothe the two limbs in trousers and ink in the features upon the flat joining bone. Feet may be made of sealing wax melted, pressed into shape and attached while still warm.

 Image Courtesy National Gallery of Art,Washington.

The  Pen Wiper Doll Illustration  c. 1937 doll illustration is from the National Art Gallery.

Credits:Miller, Eugene C., American, active c. 1935, Pen Wiper Doll, c. 1937, watercolor, graphite, and pen and ink on paperboard, overall: 35.7 x 28 cm (14 1/16 x 11 in.) Original IAD Object: 5" high, Index of American Design, 1943.8.15392

Image Courtesy of  Horman Museum & Gardens

On the Horman Museum & Gardens website I found the wishbone doll pictured above.  Here's what they had to say about her:  Tales of the Unexpected: Dolly Mixture

Here is another bone doll, this time made from a bird. This amazing little doll is from Surrey, England and is made from a wish bone - the perfect shape for legs! The clothes are made from a scrap of leather decorated with beads and the head is made from an acorn. The acorn cup makes the perfect topknot hairstyle, or perhaps a hat.

There is something so endearing about these dolls. Wouldn't you agree?

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