Friday, April 22, 2016

Missionary Rag Babies - Loved So Much They're Well Worn

Julia Jones Beecher, shown in the picture above,  and the members of the sewing circle of the Park Congregational Church made stockinette dolls from 1893 to 1910 for their charitable missionary fund, which resulted in the dolls being named "Missionary Rag Babies." They were made from stockinette, which is a soft, loosely knitted stretch fabric (i.e. underwear)  and had needle-sculptured and hand painted faces and stockinette bodies.  They also had applied ears, looped yarn hair, and sewn joints.

According to a post entitled "A Virtual Peek at the New Exhibit" on the Chemung County Historical Society blog each doll was accompanied with a note that said:  If you will always take by the waist and never by the arm; if you will give your hand a wash before you play with me; if you will not leave me out in the dust or in the sunshine, and if you will not squeeze my face flat; I will be your pretty baby for a long time.

Also: The Beecher Baby Doll is the most famous locally-made doll.  In 1885, Julia Beecher, wife of Reverend Thomas K. Beecher, was inspired to make a baby doll while she was mending stockings.  The first doll that she made for her niece led to many more.  In the next ten years, Mrs. Beecher sold 950 handmade dolls.  Over $1,000 in profits from the sales were used for projects by the ladies’ organization of Park Church.  

The irony of the dolls receiving such a note was that they were handled so much that nowadays they are very hard to find and if found are usually well worn.  I like to think they were loved so much they just couldn't stand up to the test of time.

According to Cloth Dolls From Ancient To Modern by Linda Edwards: Missionary Rag Babies or Beecher Babies were made at the inspiration of Julia Beecher of Elmira, New York.  Her first doll was made for her young niece, Daisy Day, who wanted a real baby of her own to care for.

In the Mark Twain in the Company of Women by Laura E. Skandera Trombley - University of Pennsylvania Press, Feb 1, 1997 book we learn that her husband, Thomas Beecher, considered his wife a full partner in their ministry.  Much of Julia's energy was devoted to raising money for charity: and established the first Missionary Society for Elmira, N.Y.  in 1885.  She created a doll from old hose and yarn that the Missionary Society members sold at fairs for 50 cents.  The dolls became known as "Beecher Dolls" and, later became known as "Missionary Babies or Missionary Rag Dolls."

I wanted to find some pictures of the "Beecher Dolls" and quickly discovered there were very few. Here's what  I could find:

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

The Missionary Rag Baby Doll, shown in the picture above, is from The Strong National Museum of Play website.  She is just the sweetest baby doll - don't you think?

Credits: 1893-1910, Manufacturer Julia Beecher, Material silk | jersey, Origin Elmira, NY, Object ID 78.358

According to their description: The pastor's wife of the Park Congregational Church in Elmira, NY, Julia Beecher made her first cloth doll for her niece. When others in her family requested a similar doll, Beecher sought the help of the church's sewing circle. Soon the group engaged in making dolls to support the congregation's missionary work, and according to some sources, to pay off the church's debts. The church made the Missionary Rag Babies from 1893 to 1910. The church ladies used needle sculpting and hand painting to detail the dolls' facial features, fingers, or clenched fists and made the distinctive wigs for the dolls of strains of yarn. Beecher dolls were usually clothed in a baby dress and matching bonnet.

Image Courtesy of

The Beecher Baby Stockinette Doll, shown in the picture above, is from the website.

According to their description: Elmira, New York, ca. 1900, handmade stockinette rag doll designed by Julia Jones Beecher, painted blue eyes, looped wool hair, applied ears, needle sculpted features, appropriately dressed in cotton pin tuck dress with lace insert and leather baby shoes
Size: 22" t.

Image Courtesy of Doll Shops United

Doll Shops United produced a .pdf "To Be of Use: Benefit Dolls By Lynette Gross" article that included the picture of the Missionary Rag Doll shown above.

If you would like to read that article please click here.

If you'd like to see an amazing amount of pictures of beautiful 19th century dolls Theriaults has a wonderful "The Backler Collection" October 2014 Theriaults issue on  There is a wonderful picture of a Missionary Rag Baby Doll on Page 13.

Image Courtesy of


According to their description: 20"  Firmly stuffed black stockinette head with stitch-shaped facial features, cut-out eye sockets with black shoe button eyes on background, eye whites with painted lashes, embroidered brows, nostrils and well-shaped red lips, black yarn hair cap, original brown cotton sateen body with stitch jointing at shoulders, elbows, hips and knees, mitten hands with separate thumbs.....Comments: attributed to Julia Beecher, of Elmira, New York, circa 1890.....

Image Courtesy of

The AMERICAN BLACK STOCKINETTE "MISSIONARY RAG BABY" ATTRIBUTED TO JULIA BEECHER, shown in the picture above, is also from the website.

According to their description: 21"  Firmly-stuffed black stockinette head with well- defined stitch-shaped facial features,cut-out eye sockets with eye whites having painted lashes and black shoe button eyes,embroidered brows,nostrils and well-shaped red lips,black yarn hair cap,the head sewn onto original brown cotton sateen body with stitch jointing at shoulders,elbows,hips and knees,mitten hands with separate thumbs....Comments: attributed to Julia Beecher, of Elmira, New York, circa 1890......

How can you not love a doll that is so handled and so loved that she is well worn. You can't.

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