Friday, April 08, 2016

Shell Dolls - Who Knew The Victorians Did This? Did You?

Image Courtesy of Carmel Doll Shop 

I've heard of sea shells being used to create elaborate pieces of art for hundreds of years - like sailors valentines but had never heard of shells being used to create outfits for dolls? Have you? Well, it turns out it was a very popular craft during the Victorian Era.

I found the Shell Doll pictured above on the Carmel Doll Shop website and think she is one of the prettiest shell dolls I've seen so far.  Just look at her beautiful outfit and bonnet. Just stunning.

Her description is as follows: Shell Doll wearing a wonderful stylish "dress" of the 1840 era. A lovely Grodnertal Wooden also wears a delightful hat to top off her stunning ensemble, there are a few missing shells to the reverse.She stands a sweet seven inches tall.

I may not have been aware of this doll crafting method, but was really intrigued when I saw pictures of a few of the shell costume dolls from the 19th century like the "Small Early Shell Doll Holding a Dog" from the Skinner Inc. Auctions website.

Since I literally had never heard of dolls and their outfits being made from tiny shells I had to find out more about these very unusual dolls. Here's what I found:

Image Courtesy of

According to, "Shellcraft, also known as shell craft, is the craft of making decorative objects, or of decorating surfaces, using seashells. The craft includes the design and creation of small items such as shell jewelry and figurines made from shells; middle-sized objects such as boxes and mirror frames covered in shells; sailor's valentines; and larger constructions including mosaics and shell grottos."

The following excerpt is a blog post post entitled Victorian Shell Art from the Disenchanted & Co. Blog:  "Shell art became hugely popular during the Victorian era, when it was fashionable to decorate picture frames, embellish boxes and vases, and create grottoes. Ladies would collect shells, dip the back side of them in hot wax and attach them in artful designs to whatever they were decorating. Her Majesty Queen Victoria was also very fond of shell art, which she often commissioned to make portraits and gifts for her favorites at court. A shell art portrait of King Dick, one of her favorite dogs, reportedly still hangs in Buckingham Palace."

According to a Shellcraft article on The Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland: In the 18th and early 19th centuries fashionable ladies of artistic inclination collected shells and housed their collections in cabinets fitted with small drawers or wooden chests with compartmentalised trays. 

Objects such as birds, animals and human figures have been made out of shells from the earliest days of shellcraft and it is a theme in shell work which has persisted to the present day. Some early examples were wooden dolls which were clothed in garments composed entirely of shells. Often these fine examples of shellcraft are displayed inside glass domes.

According to the strong Museum of Play  World travelers of the 19th century often purchased shell dolls as mementos of the seaside resorts they visited. Local artisans used tiny native seashells to make costumes, some of which represented local or folk clothing. The artisans often used ready-made wooden figures, called "penny woodens" and mass produced in Germany, for their souvenir shell dolls. Other shell dolls made use of tiny papier mache dolls also available from Germany and in sizes ranging from about one inch to two or three feet tall. Shell artisans worked mosaic patterns of color and texture into the shell "clothing" they made for their souvenirs.

According to them shell collecting first appealed to the wealthy European ladies who could afford the exotic shells. When traveling and commerce made the shells more affordable the middle class ladies took up this craft as well.

Victorian women decorated all sorts of items with seashells.  Items like trinket boxes, picture frames, mirrors, dolls, dressers, dollhouse furniture, etc. In fact, some of the more popular magazines of the times, like "godey's Lady's Book" offered how-to's for creating shell art with shell dolls becoming a fashionable display in their parlors.

According to The Doll Book page 206-207 written in 1908 by Laura B. Starr under the Homemade Dolls chapter the shell work of her grandmother's day was being revived in 1908.

According to Laura: In the early Victorian period it was the fashion for visitors at the seashore to gather shells of different sizes and fix them with glue on frames and boxes and flat surfaces.

An enterprising Irish lady, who saw in a Guernsey cottage doll dressed in garments of shell more than a hundred years ago, conceived the idea of making modern dolls of shells and succeeded so well that she has a large variety of them.

She then went on to explain how to make a shell doll on Page 207.  If you'd like to read what she said please CLICK HERE and then scroll to page 207.

Here's a few of the shell dolls I found in The Strong National Museum of Play collection:

Online Collections (The Strong) / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Shell Doll - 1850

I wonder how much time it took to create this shell doll and her amazing outfit.

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

I love the shell design on her outfit.  It definitely had to take a while to add all those little shells.

Here's a few of the shell dolls I found for sale on auction websites.

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The beautiful WONDERFUL 19TH CENTURY PAPIER-MACHE PEDDLER DOLL IN ORIGINAL SHELL COSTUME, shown in the picture above, was from the website.  How beautiful is she?

According to their description: 11" (to top of hat). Papier-mache shoulder head with heart-shaped face,black sculpted hair with ornate chignon captured under an elaborate shell bonnet with a bouquet of shell flowers,stippled detail of hair around the forehead,painted facial features,large blue eyes,black upper eyeliner,single stroke brows,firm structure torso,wooden lower arms and legs,painted blue shoes,posed upon original paper-covered base which is attached to a base with blown glass dome. Condition: generally excellent. Comments: circa 1850,using German papier-mache head,the fishermen of Brittany created these delightful shell concoctions during the winter months; this example depicts a "she sells sea shells" peddler lady with very ornately designed dress of tiny colored seashells,holding a market tray of seashell flowers. Value Points: intricately and artistically constructed in a remarkable state of preservation. Realized Price: $10,500.

I absolutely love her stunning outfit and mixture of tiny shells.  I can only imagine how long it took to create her outfit.

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I found the FRENCH PAPER MACHE MAN AND WOMAN IN BEAUTIFULLY-DETAILED SHELL COSTUMES couple, pictured above on the They are just beautiful.

According to their description: 9"  Each with paper mache shoulder head and painted facial features, carved wooden hands and feet, elaborate "shell" costume which is created by overlapping tiny shells whose variant colors suggested fabric designs, and posed on original matching base. Including lady with black sculpted hair elegantly waved from her face and with high-peaked coiffe, long gown and holding a spool of flax; and man with short blonde bobbed hair, with glazed hat and holding a shell-shaped lobster. Condition: very good, some shell loss. Comments: French, circa 1850. Value Points: beautifully-designed costumed dolls and elaborate original bases, along with a wooden doll chair with silk upholstery and shell borders.

Image Courtesy of

The GERMAN PAPER MACHE LADY, SHELL COSTUME FOR THE FRENCH MARKET IN ORIGINAL CABINET, shown in the picture above, was also from the website.

According to her description: 8 1/2" Paper mache shoulder head with painted facial features, sculpted long black hair which is overlaid by a shell-decorated coiffe, slender kid body with carved wooden limbs, painted yellow shoes, and having an elaborate costume of miniature shells whose intricate designs suggested various textile designs. The doll is preserved under her original glass cabinet. Condition: craquelure on face and shoulders, shell costume beautifully-preserved. Comments: German doll, decorated in the seaside Brittany regions of France, mid-1800s. Value Points: lovely and artistic detail of shell costume design.

I would like to make a shell doll sometime. Before I can I need to research where I can buy lots and lots of tiny shells in various shapes, colors, and sizes. Any ideas?

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