Saturday, April 16, 2016

Carved Nut Dolls - What? Unusual Indeed

 Slide #6 - Image Courtesy National Gallery of Art,Washington.

In perusing the collection of doll illustrations from the Dolls From The Index of American Design at National Gallery Of Art I also kept coming back to slide #6 which is shown in the picture above.

The description was: Carved nuts formed the heads of many early dolls. Different kinds of nuts were used: hazelnuts, walnuts, hickory nuts, and even cashews. These dolls were expendable and could be discarded when the children began to tire of them. This example represents a colonial gentlemen with elegant clothes and a wise expression. The doll is from Wisconsin and was made in the eighteenth century.

Credits: Jacob Gielens (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Milwaukee Public Museum (object owner), Nut Head Doll, c. 1938, watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil on paperboard, Index of American Design, 1943.8.15550

So, I looked to see if The National Gallery of Art had any more examples of carved nut dolls. Here's what I found:

Nut Head Doll #2 - Image Courtesy National Gallery of Art,Washington.

Credits: Frank, William, American, active c. 1935, Nut Head Doll #2, 1935/1942, watercolor and graphite on paperboard, overall: 35.5 x 25 cm (14 x 9 13/16 in.) Original IAD Object: 7" high; 5 1/4" wide, Index of American Design, 1943.8.15549

Hickory Nut Doll - Image Courtesy National Gallery of Art,Washington.

Credits: Hickory Nut Doll c. 1938 Harry Grossen | National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Medium:watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Artist Details: American, active c. 1935, Artist Nationality: American, Artist School: American, Classification: Index of American Design

I was well aware of apple head dolls, toothpick dolls, wishbone dolls and dolls from twigs, but dolls from hazelnuts, walnuts, hickory nuts, and even cashews? What? How do you make a doll from a cashew?

I just had to know more. Here's what I found:

According to Page 162 of the Encyclopedia of American Folk Art edited by Gerard C. Wertkin:  Unlike corn dolls, which have dual origins in European and North American cultures, nut and apple dolls were largely indigenous to American soil. Most nut head dolls were small, averaging 3 to 10 inches in height, with the character and personality determined by the type of nut used. They fit into the rich craft heritage of the southern United States highlands. In the deep south, nut-head dolls often portrayed African Americans in stereotypical roles.

According to "Anthropologists and Indians in the New South edited by Rachel Bonney & J. Anthony Paredes" Choctaw dolls with cloth bodies and heads carved from hickory nuts were among those in the collection of the Museum of the Five Civilized Tribes in Muskogee.

In a Colonial Williamsburg Article With Boughs of Holly by Mary Miley Theobald I learned: Alice West Allen, who was eleven when she attended a Christmas party in Richmond in 1864, wrote:

A dear friend of my mother’s found that we were to spend Christmas in the city, so she invited us to a Christmas tree given to President Davis’s children. The tree was a lovely holly laden with homemade candles and dolls made out of hickory nuts and Canton flannel. . . . I have never seen anything that looked so pretty to me.

According to Page 355-356 of  The Puritan Vol VIII - April to September 1900: For a jolly little "Brownie" doll, take for a body an English walnut, and for a head a hazelnut.  Add legs and arms of twisted wire covered with twisted tissue paper, and place on his head a tiny cap of red flannel. In his hand fasten (by bending the wire around it) a small flag.

Image Courtesy of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum
Mammy Nut Doll, c.1840-1899
Hickory nut, leather, wire, textiles, horse hair, paint

In an article "A Month in Virginia: Examining Nineteenth Century Mammy Dolls" by Nicole Sheridan for the University of St. Thomas I found the picture shown above.

On two websites I found information about workshops and/or instructions for teaching you how to make Hickory Nut Dolls:

The American Civil War Museum was offering a Hickory Doll Workshop.  According to their description: Hickory Doll Workshop, Location: Museum of the Confederacy-Appomattox, Hickory Doll - This workshop taught by Juanita Reynolds is limited to ten participants. Attendees will follow the pattern of a doll made by a young girl during the Civil War as they make their own Hickory Nut Doll. Mrs. Reynolds will provide a complete kit from which each doll will be made.

On Page 152 of The Puritan, Volumes 7-8, October 1899 in the Little Housekeeper section they had instructions for making baby dolls out of the nuts from the harvest.

Here's what they said: Hickory nuts make the dearest long clothes babies.  Eyes and eyebrows, nose and mouth, must be drawn by some clever grown up, and then the little mother can make a frilled cap of lace to cover the bald head.  To the bottom of this cap may be sewed the neck of the petticoat slip and dress, and a soft flannel shawl must be pinned around the baby's shoulders so that outside people will not see that she hasn;t any arms.

They also provided the following for walnut head dolls:  A wrinkled walnut makes a beautiful head for a wrinkled old colored mammy, and her head must, of course, be tied up in a gay calico square like a bandana.  It is easy to make a soft little body of rags for these nut dolls, and they may be fastened on the heads by holes bored into the shells.

First edition 

It seems there was a 1946 children's book story written about a hickory head doll and her adventures. It's entitled "Miss Hickory" and was written by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey & illustrated by Ruth Gannett - published by Viking Press.

According to the page on this "Miss Hickory" book it is a novel that won the Newbery Medal of Excellence in American children's literature in 1947.

According to the page: The protagonist is Miss Hickory, a doll made from a forked twig from an apple tree and a hickory nut for her head (hence her name). She lives in a tiny doll house made of corncobs outside the home of her human owners. Her world is shaken when the family decides to spend the winter in Boston, Massachusetts, but leave her behind. Miss Hickory is aided during the long cold winter by several farm and forest animals. Prickly and a little stubborn, she slowly learns to accept help from others, and to offer some assistance herself.

Miss Hickory was republished in 1977 by Puffin Books with the cover shown above. The description on the website is as follows:  Most dolls lead a comfortable but unadventurous life. This was true of Miss Hickory until the fateful day that her owner, Ann, moves from her New Hampshire home to attend school in Boston—leaving Miss Hickory behind. For a small doll whose body is an apple-wood twig and whose head is a hickory nut, the prospect of spending a New Hampshire winter alone is frightening indeed. In this classic modern day fairy tale, what’s a doll to do?

It seems "Miss Hickory" is a popular book amongst young children which has prompted an interest in making Miss Hickory dolls.

Image Courtesy of Illustrated Miscellany Emma Lulu

I found the most wonderful 4-part tutorial series on the "Illustrated Miscellany Emma Lulu" blog showing you how to make the 'Miss Hickory" doll shown in the picture above.

Here is what Thea said about her 4-part tutorial: It took me 35+ years, but at long last I have created a Miss Hickory Doll! I think she matches pretty well the charming book illustrations by Ruth Gannett and the spirit of the character portrayed by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey.

In the next several posts I will give instructions for making your own Miss Hickory doll. But, you must read the story first!! That will surely influence your characterization of the doll.....

Image Courtesy of Illustrated Miscellany Emma Lulu

I think the "Miss Hickory" doll shown above is totally adorable.  I may just have to make one of my own.  It is an unusual doll to say the least and something I don't have in my doll collection.

While I love the illustrations of the nut head dolls from The National Gallery of Art I wanted to see if I could find pictures of any existing  nut head dolls.  Here's what I found:

Image Courtesy of

On the website I found the THREE EARLY HICKORY NUT FOLK DOLLS shown in the picture above.

Here's what their description said: Lot Number: 438 - 4 1/2"  Each has hickory nut head with painted facial features. cloth body,and wearing original costume. Included are organ grinder with monkey,and elderly woman with purse,both posed on original wooden bases with paper label "This is an authentic Little Hickory by Elaine Cannon",mid-20th century. And with an earlier old woman in a shoe with tiny porcelain frozen Charlotte dolls peeks out from holes in the shoe..... 

Image Courtesy of

The website also had the American Black Folk Doll shown in the picture above.

According to their description said: Lot Number: 226 -  9" Nut-head doll with carved definition of nose,painted facial features with wide beaming smile,row of teeth,black fleecy hair,firmly stuffed muslin body and slender limbs,carved feet with over-sized brown shoes..... Comments: American,early 20th century....

The following two were from the website:

Image Courtesy of Live Auctioneer

According to their description: male and female figures including a man with bag of cotton, period costumes. Each on a modern display stand. First half 20th century. 7 1/2" to 10 1/2" H. Provenance: From a 35-year Augusta Co., VA collection. Purchased from Vince and Carol Deibler, Ridgefield, CT.

There's something quite charming and unique about all the nut head dolls - don't you think?. I'm sure there's a story to each doll - if only they could tell us. Unusual, but endearing dolls none the less.

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