Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bartholomew's Babies - Beautiful or Tawdry Dolls

Bartholomew Fair as illustrated in 1808 - Image Courtesy of
Held in West Smithfield (1133–1855) on St. Bartholomew’s Day.

In doing research for wooden dolls I ran across a definition of a doll in The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue which defined a Bartholomew Baby as: A person dressed up in a tawdry manner, like the dolls or babies sold at Bartholomew fair.

A doll being associated with a tawdry mannered person. A showy and cheap doll? What? I had to know more.

So I checked out some other definitions.

According to The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia of 1889 under the definition for baby: Bartholomew baby a kind of doll sold originally at Bartholomew fair in London, and celebrated as best then known.  

It also tells farmers what manner of wife they shall choose; not one trickt up with ribbons and knots like a Bartholomew baby. Poor Richards Almanac 1695.

So, the doll is celebrated as the best then known, but still connotates tawdry.

According to the Dictionary of Early English By Joseph T. ShipleyBartholomew-baby, a gawdy doll; a puppet.  Poor Robin (1740) speaks of telling farmers what manner of wife they should chuse, not one trickt up with ribband and knots like a Bartholomew-baby; for such a one will prove a holiday wife, all play and no work.

According to Chapter XVII of Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair Published in 1857 By Henry Morley: Dolls, now so dear to all young daughters of England were not known by that name before the reign of William and Mary.  They were called sometimes "poppets" but more usually "babies." ....... Bartholomew Babies, elegantly dressed and carefully packed in boxes, seem to have been regarded as the best.

Another definition was: A Bartholomew doll. A tawdry, overdressed woman; like a flashy, bespangled doll offered for sale at Bartholomew Fair.

According to The Bartholomew FairThe Bartholomew Fair was one of London's pre-eminent summer Charter fairs. A charter for the fair was granted to Rahere by Henry I to fund the Priory of St Bartholomew; and from 1133 to 1855 it took place each year on 24 August within the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, outside Aldersgate of the City of London.The fair continued, after the Dissolution within the Liberty of the parish of St Bartholomew-the-Great.....

The fair was suppressed in 1855 by the City authorities for encouraging debauchery and public disorder. The Newgate Calendar had denounced the fair as a "school of vice which has initiated more youth into the habits of villainy than Newgate itself."

If you would like more information on the Smithfield and Bartholomew Fair the Old and New London: Volume 2. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878 excerpt contains quite a bit of information on the fair.

I couldn't help but wonder what the Bartholomew's Babies dolls sold at this fair looked like. Were they tawdry or of the finest quality?

Here's what I found out:

Image Courtesy of

I didn't find anything on the various museum websites that were specifically called  a "Bartholomew Baby."  However, I did find a picture of a present day replica of a "Bartholomew Baby" as shown in the picture above on the website on a Bartholomew Baby, Medieval - Tudor, Replica post.

According to their post: Many of the earliest dolls were made of wood – indeed even Roman children had wooden dolls. This one is a replica of an early English wooden doll, called a Bartholomew Baby. It is an accurate copy of a doll that would have been available in medieval and Tudor times. The name comes from the fair in London where they were sold, St Bartholomew’s Fair.

It is a simply but beautifully carved doll with no arms and no joints, though some examples had arms of leather. They were sold painted and dressed in the fashions of the day. Wooden babies, as they were known, were not called 'dolls' until the 18th century.

Okay, so all dolls, which were sold mainly at this fair and elsewhere weren't called dolls, but Bartholomew's Babies because of the fair they were sold at.  I still couldn't help but wonder why and when did the beautiful dolls become tawdry?

Here's what the  Bartholomew Baby, Medieval - Tudor, Replica post on the website: Over time the Fair developed a reputation as visitors to the Fair often had too much to drink and sometimes behaved badly – so there was a slang term, Bartholomew Baby, to indicate someone who was drunk and not behaving well.

Image Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg

The doll pictured above is from The Colonial Williamsburg website and is included in the Babies, Balls, and Bull Roarers Christmastime or Anytime, Kids Still Enjoy the Toys and Games Their Forebears Loved by David Robinson article.

The caption on the picture was: Bewigged and begowned in lace and embroidered silk, this doll, now in Colonial Williamsburg's collections, must have been the treasure of some eighteenth-century girl. Photo by Hans Lorenz.

According to their article:  Sir Walter's gifts weren't "dolls." Not yet. Until the 1750s these little figures would be called "Bartholomew's babies" or just "babies," after the great Bartholomew Fair in England, where so many of them were bought and sold. Some weren't toys but style statements, stitched in the latest fashions to be copied full-size by seamstresses far from the big-city tastemakers in days before there were patterns and ladies' magazines. 

Certainly the doll above is beautiful.  Were they all beautiful?  Since I couldn't find any actual examples in the museum websites I decided to look at a few of the paintings of girls and dolls that would certainly depict how the dolls looked in the artist's time.

According to The Tudor Tailor Designer Dolls and Playful Popyns article: Dolls were cherished in the 16th century just as they are now and several are depicted in paintings of children. The 1577 portrait of two-year-old Arbella Stuart at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire shows her clutching a richly-dressed example, which is thought to have been a fashion doll before it became a plaything. An equally impressive doll from c1590 is at Livrustkammaren, Stockholm (search for ‘docka’). Dolls were not only owned by the children of the elite – simple wooden dolls were cheaply available at fairs too (those bought at St Bartholomew’s Fair were known as ‘Bartholomew babies’) or were made at home from scraps of cloth. 

Here's a few of the paintings I found and the "beautiful" dolls:

Image Courtesy of The Athenaeum
Every time I look at this painting and the expression on her face I get sad.  I feel like the only thing that gives this little girl pleasure is her simple dolly.

 Image Courtesy of The Hermitage  Museum 

Description: Author: Greuze, Jean-Baptiste. 1725-1805, Title: Girl with a Doll, Place: France, Date:
1750s, Material: canvas,Technique: oil, Acquisition date: Entered the Hermitage in 1922; transferred from the Academy of Fine Arts, Inventory Number: ГЭ-3689

According to their description: In the middle of the 18th century French painters began to depict the people of the Third Estate - the commoners - often artisans, working families and the poor. Here we see a small girl from some poor area of Paris, wearing her modest dress and with a serious expression in her far from childish eyes, clutching one of her few and thus treasured toys to her breast. The painting was taken from the life, or perhaps from a drawing taken from the life. Although the artist in fact put little store by portraiture as a genre, his portraits are works of great charm which yet seem to create a very truthful picture of the sitters.

I couldn't agree more.  Like the first little girl pictured above, the only thing that makes this little girl happy is her doll.

Image Courtesy of Christie's Auction Catalog

According to the Christie's Auction Catalog the painting above is: Dutch School, 18th century - Portrait of a child, wearing a white lace dress and headdress, standing behind... oil on canvas

So, it seems the "Bartholomew Baby" was another name for a doll because of the fair it was sold at. And, because the people at the fair got out of control "Bartholomew Baby" came to be synonymous with their bad behavior.

So is the doll beautiful or tawdry?  As far as I'm concerned based on the the pictures above whether the doll was with a wealthy child or poor child, or was elaborately adorned or simply decorated it was cherished. So, in the mind of the child it was "beautiful" and could never become "tawdry."

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