Sunday, March 27, 2016

Early American Wooden Dolls By Joel Ellis From 1873

While I was doing research  on the "The History of Faceless Dolls" I read several articles about antique wooden dolls and fell in love with Penny Wooden Dolls so much so that I ended up writing a blog post entitled, "I'm In Love With Penny Wooden or Peg Wooden Dolls."

While doing that research I also ran across the wooden dolls created by Joel Ellis in 1873 which piqued my curiosity as he was from Vermont and only made his dolls for one year. Given I'm a die hard New Englander and curious as to why he only made them for one year I had to find out more.

Not only did I love his wooden dolls, what interested me was the workmanship on his dolls clothes, which was exceptional, unlike the cheap clothes on manufactured dolls today.

The doll pictured above is for sale on the website - 9: Rare 19th Century Wooden Head Doll, Joel Ellis.  According to their website this doll is attributed to Joel Ellis with metal hands, legs & feet and stands 15" tall.

According to their website,"Joel Ellis created a doll whose face is indeed a portrait of the traditional New England model of graceful simplicity – a quiet composed and simple beauty that now transports us to a long ago time. Yet we may forget the technological challenges and triumphs so benignly represented in this little rendition of humanity."

It turns out that Joel was an inventive genius who patented 13 different articles, one of which was for a wooden doll. He is credited as being the creator of the first commercial doll for America which he manufactured through his company, the Co-operative Manufacturing Company, on the premises of the Vermont Novelty Goods Company.

He filed his patent for a wooden doll of rock maple with mortise and tenon joints, and pewter or iron hands and feet on February 21, 1873 and it was granted on May 20, 1873.

According to the article from the Old and Sold Antiques Marketplace, "In 1873 Ellis took out a patent for a wooden doll of rock maple with mortise and tenon joints, and pewter or iron hands and feet. Heads were of blocks of wood taken from the end of the grain and rounded, except for one pointed side which allowed for the nose. Each block was put into a steel mold and shaped under hydraulic pressure. When it came out of the press, holes were drilled to fit a large tenon that had been made on the end of the body. The head, which was stationary, was glued to the body by means of this large tenon. The doll came in twelve, fifteen, and eighteen-inch heights. The most plentiful is the twelve inch, the least, the eighteen inch."

According to the description of the 9: Rare 19th Century Wooden Head Doll, Joel Ellis, "The first Ellis dolls of 1871 had pewter heads and feet. There was only one style of head and body available. The doll embodies many technical innovations. Its unique mortise and tenon construction allow a complete range of movement. Molded of rock hard rock maple, an extinct type of hardwood prevalent in New England at that time, molding and finishing must have demanded great skill. The design and construction proves excellent technical skill. Not only ingeniously built, it is well proportioned and gracefully elegant. The articulated joints work with uncommon ease. The metal hands and feet are gracefully shaped. It is a most sophisticated doll figure."

He filed his patent for a wooden doll of rock maple with mortise and tenon joints, and pewter or iron hands and feet on February 21, 1873 and it was granted on May 20, 1873.

In doing research for this on the web I found a copy of the patent page from The Commissioners of Patents' Journal By Great Britain. Patent Office.  What's interesting to note about this page, which is shown in the picture above, is that the person listed above him is Thomas Edison.  That listing is the patent for a "printing telegraph."  If you'd like to see a version of that page that you can read please CLICK HERE.

Joel Ellis operated the Co-Operative Manufacturing Company in Springfield Vermont from 1873 to 1874.

According to the Old and Sold Antiques Marketplace article, "The head, lower limbs, and forearms were dipped in flesh-colored paint; the features, eyes, and hair were painted by women, notably by two cousins of Joel Ellis, the Misses Woodbury, who became painters of miniatures."

Joel's dolls were only manufactured for one year due to the depression of 1873 so they are extremely rare today. Supposedly they cost 75 cents, which was an expensive amount for a doll in 1873. Their value today is dependant on the dolls condition and size, with the larger dolls valued at several thousand dollars.

Online Collections (The Strong) / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The doll shown above is from the collection on the Museum Of Play website.

According to their description of this doll: Joel Ellis and the Cooperative Manufacturing Company, a collaborative of craftsmen in Springfield, Vermont, patented this wooden doll in 1873. Using local maple, Ellis created a uniquely jointed doll. Projections on the doll's body fit into slots on its arms and legs. Serving as pivots, steel pins held these mortise-and-tenon joints together. Friction in the joints allowed the doll's limbs and body to stay in any desired position. Unlike soft-bodied dolls of the time, the "Springfield Woodens" could even stand on their heads! This design, fascinating to children, led advertisers to declare that the "cost and trouble of dressing" the doll could be avoided. 

Also, according to their description: True to Victorian-era conventions, women, who made up one-third of the 50-60 employees, painted the doll's features and cast-iron hands and feet, while only men operated the complex lathes and other machinery. Ellis stopped making the dolls after one year, and Vermont Novelty Works, another Springfield firm, subsequently manufactured them under Ellis's patent until 1893.

Credits:doll 1873, Manufacturer -Vermont Novelty Works | Cooperative Mfg. Co., Material wood | metal, Origin Springfield, VT, Style Springfield, Object ID 78.1163

God forbid Victorian women were allowed to use lathes and other machinery!

Image Courtesy of

What intrigued me about the dolls was their clothing and that they were made during the Victorian Era.The dolls pictured above are 50: Pair of Joel Ellis Dolls from the website. I just love the tiered layers of the dolls dress above.

Image Courtesy of Cowan's Auctions

I found the doll pictured above, whose outfit I just love, on the Cowan's Auctions website - Lot 487  Early Joel Ellis Wooden Jointed Doll.

In 2005 some of Joel's dolls were the highlight of an exhibit by the Springfield Art and Historical Society which had combined it's doll collection with dolls from the Eldridge family of Springfield. The exhibit has 500 dolls from around the world including some from Joel Ellis.

Image Courtesy of Morphy Auctions

If you look at the picture of the Rare Joel Ellis Wood Doll pictured above from the Morphy Auctions website you can't help but admire it's simplistic beauty.  At least I can't.

Image Courtesy of

While the features of the dolls remained the same as he used the same mold for all his dolls he did manufacture both white and black dolls, like the beautiful Rare American Black-Complexioned Doll by Joel Ellis doll pictured above on the Theriault's website and the Black Joel Ellis Jointed Wooden Doll pictured on the Skinner Inc. website.

Image Courtesy of

The AMERICAN WOODEN DOLL BY JOEL ELLIS WITH RARE BROWN HAIR, shown in the picture above,  is also from the Theriault's website 

Image Courtesy of Willis Henry Auctions 

I found the 66. Joel Ellis carved wood doll  pictured above and 67. Two Joel Ellis  dolls pictured below on the Willis Henry Auctions website.

Image Courtesy of Willis Henry Auctions 

The paint on the dolls seems to be the weakest element in  their construction and hasn't held up as well as the clothing has. Despite that you can't help but admire the beauty of these dolls and simplicity of their design. Had it not been for the depression of 1873 he probably would have continued manufacturing his charming dolls.

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