Saturday, September 03, 2016

How Wonderful! I Heard From A Descendant of Roxanna Cole - Hilarie Johnston

Conway, Arkansas Studio Portrait of 4 Generations

Back row left: Roxanna Cole - age 68
Back row center: Sarah Thurmond Hunt (Molly's Mother)
Back row right: Mary Love Harten (Sarah's Mother-In-Law)
Front row left: Molly Hunt Cole - age 44 (Roxanna's Daughter-In-Law)
Front row right: Sarah Harten- age 20 (Molly's Daughter) holding 1 Yr. Old Laura Harten

To my sheer delight in August 2016 I received a wonderful email from the great, great, great granddaughter of Roxanna Cole, Hilarie Johnston, asking me to contact her. She wanted to tell me that she had two of Roxanna's beautiful handmade dolls.

If you will recall back in April of 2016 I wrote a Linda's Blog post entitled "Roxanna Elizabeth McGee Cole's Beautiful Family Of 19th Century Dolls" that contained all the information, or should I say lack of information, I could find on Roxanna Cole.

Image Courtesy National Gallery of Art,Washington.

My research on Roxanna Cole all started with my perusing the collection of doll illustrations from the Dolls From The Index of American Design at National Gallery Of Art. I kept coming back to slide #3, which was shown in the picture above. I was drawn to it because it was a Grandmother (like me) and because it was about a southern lady who made cloth dolls to support herself after the Civil War.

The description was: Here is a handmade cloth doll representing a grandmother knitting a red wool sock. The doll was made by a southern gentlewoman who supported herself after the Civil War by making fine cloth dolls. This was the one-thousandth doll made by this woman.

The credits were as follows: Jane Iverson (artist), American, active c. 1935, Anonymous Craftsman (object maker), Wenham Historical Society (object owner), Doll, c. 1936, watercolor and graphite on paper, Index of American Design, 1943.8.15542

Given my love of history, especially where doll makers are concerned, I just had to know more. There was just so much reflection in the doll's face.  I couldn't help but wonder what she was thinking.

Well, it turns out the illustration above was actually of the "Grandma Cole" doll made by Roxanna Elizabeth McGee Cole who started making dolls in the United States in 1868.  Roxanna actually made this as a portrait doll of herself.

Of course, I had to find out more.  So, I scoured the internet, the library, and whatever doll books I could find.  Given the popularity of her dolls I was sure I'd find a lot of pictures of her dolls on the web. Since I knew several had been donated to the Wenham Museum and the Historic Museum of Arkansas I figured they'd have some pictures on their websites. I was wrong. They didn't.

I tried searching through some of the Smithsonian Institute's websites to see if there was any information on Roxanna Cole's dolls and was unable to find anything.  I was able to find two pictures of her dolls on the Arkansas Made Facebook page which is maintained by the Historic Museum of Arkansas.

I was hoping that if she had made a thousand dolls or more I would be able to see more pictures of them, but was disappointed. I resigned myself to viewing the pictures in the two books I had and contemplating a trip to the Wenham Museum in Massachusetts, which has several of her dolls.

That was until I received the email from her great, great, great granddaughter, Hilarie Johnston, asking me to contact her and telling me she had two Cole dolls. There was never any doubt that I would contact her. I was thrilled by the possibility of learning more about Roxanna, who was an amazingly gifted dollmaker.

I told her I was so happy to hear from her and would love to see and post pictures of the two Cole dolls she had and that I would  love to know more about her and her family. She sent the picture of her ancestors shown at the beginning of this post and the following pictures:

The picture above is of her two Roxanna Cole dolls.

They may be tattered and worn from age but just look at the beautifully painted expressions on their faces and in their eyes. Plus, you can see the shaping of the stuffing in the nose and chin which was characteristic of Roxanne's cloth dolls. You can only image how beautiful they were when Roxanna originally finished them.

Also, just look at the amazing amount of detail and intricacy involved in their dresses. I wonder how much time it took to sew them.


The picture above and the picture below are of a Cole doll made by Roxanna's daughter-in-law, Molly Hunt Cole. Her tag reads Molly Hunt Cole child.

I just love the picture above as you can see how beautifully her face was drawn. Plus, I just love her teeth and the fine drawing of her hair.

The above two pictures are of a quilt handmade and signed by Roxanna Elizabeth Cole herself. I was thrilled to see these as I had no idea she was a quilter, but shouldn't have been surprised given the historic timeframe.

Hilarie also sent the following pictures of a poem that Roxanna wrote and which was handwritten on one of the quilts that she had made.

Handwritten at the top was, "Lines handwritten in ink on a lovely old cotton quilt of patchwork in geometric shapes with embroidery in silk and chenille, including flowers and butterflies, etc."

The poem reads:

I've looked on rarer fabric
The wonders of the loom
That caught the flowers of summer
And captive held their bloom.

But not their wreathing beauty
Though fit for queen to wear,
Can with one household treasure
That's all mine own compare.

It has no golden value
that simple patchwork spread
It's squares in homely fashion
Set in with green and red:

But in these faded pieces
For me is shining bright,
Ah, many a summer morning.
And many a winter night.

The dewy breath of clover;
The leaping light of flame
Like spells my heart come over
As one by one I name.

These bits of old time dresses - 
Chintz, cambric, calico
That looked so fresh and dainty
On my darlings long ago.

This violet was Mother's
I seem to see her face
That ever, like the sunrise
Lit up the shadiest place.

The green was worn by June,
The sober gray was mine
And baby Laura the sprinkled pink
With buff and blue combine
And Bettie wore this mellow brown
Where dainty roses shine.

I turn my patchwork over, 
A book with pictured leaves
And I feel the lilac fragrance
And the snowfall on the leaves.

Of all my heart's possessions
I think it least could spare
The quilt dear "mama" pieced at home
When children all were there.

Roxanna Elizabeth McGee Cole

Hilarie told me that she was looking for the quilt that had that poem handwritten on it and that every time she reads the poem she cries. To see a handmade quilt with a handwritten poem on it reflecting on where the various pieces of fabric came from is so touching. Talk about a beautiful and cherished family heirloom.

In my previous research I learned that Roxanna's name was also spelled as Roxana from time to time. Hilarie confirmed this and said, "I think that Mom started spelling the name differently, but in various notes before Mom's article was written, I see Roxana." As a loving tribute to her great, great, great grandmother she named her daughter Roxanna.

The four pictures shown below are from the exceptional patchwork octagonal quilt that Roxanna Elizabeth Cole made.

Just look at the intricate details in the close-up picture above of the multicolored patchwork octagons created from multiple trapezoid rows with a log cabin center square. Each of the octagons is surrounded with 5-point stars with double or triple center squares. Can you image how much time it took to hand make this quilt and the artistic skill involved. It's just astonishing.

Hilarie mentioned that her mother, Estelle Johnston, had written an article on Roxanna Cole's cloth dolls which was published in Dolls magazine - November 1994 and presented at the Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art. Estelle and her husband Jon loaned the museum four Roxanna Cole dolls which were created by Jon's great, great grandmother in the late 19th century. The Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art, which was established in 1992, closed in February 2012.

Hilarie also sent the following four pictures of the article her mother, Estelle Johnston, had written which was a treasure trove of information on Roxanna Cole. Her article was titled, " Heirlooms of the Heart." The description was, "An unsung victorian heroine leaves the legacy of her cloth dolls and creative talents to future generations."

I was thrilled to read this article by Estelle Johnston as, finally, there was some information on Roxanna. Here's a few excerpts from Estelle's article:

"Roxanna Elizabeth McGee was born in Tennessee on August 3, 1825, and by the age of six had already made a doll. By her own description, it was life size, handsewn of cloth, and stuffed with bran, rocks, and nails to make it the weight of a real baby. In 1842 she married William Russell Cole, a merchant in Ripley. Mississippi. Between 1846 and 1867 she recorded the births of five children in the family bible: three girls and two boys. Her last baby, a girl, died young, as did many infants in the 19th century. Other important dates are unclear, but a letter written to a cousin in 1862, Roxanna described the that had made her husband sick in body and mind, "old, bent, angry and almost disheartened." He is thought to have died in 1867 or early 1868. She later spoke of being bereft of loved ones upon whom she had depended for support, but Roxanna refused to give in to the double-edged panic of grief and poverty. Instead, she put her needle and paint brush to work."

Roxanna followed her youngest son, William, and her daughter-in-law, Molly Hunt, to Conway, Arkansas and started making her cloth dolls.

According to Estelle's article in Dolls magazine and an article by The Boston Daily Advertiser in 1898 Roxanna first tried to sell her dolls in Memphis and New Orleans, but decided New York might be a better fit due to its' wealthy and aristocratic patrons and, hopefully, more demand.  Despite being told not to send rag dolls to the merchant she had contacted, as the merchant was already overstocked, she sent two of her exquisite cloth dolls.

According to Estelle, "Satisfied that the visitors and shoppers in the great market had never seen anything in the doll line comparable to the exhibit which she could send, she determined to renew her efforts to find a market there in New York."

"She says: "I took the liberty of sending two, anyhow; and it was not long before I had the pleasure or receiving an order for a whole dozen of my beautiful babies."  

Soon she was receiving orders across the continent and from Germany.

According to Estelle's article Roxanna not only made dolls to sell, but for her own pleasure, as well as for her family members. However, she didn't only make dolls, she also made amazing art quilts and 3-dimensional art pictures like the one shown in the article photo above and blown-up in the photo below.

According to Estelle's article: "One three-dimensional picture in the double frame of gilt and wood originally had leather flowers (another Victorian craft) applied all around, which have dried and disintegrated. But the scene itself is intact and a masterful interpretation of a doll panel described in a ladies publication of 1883, which suggested the use of a "puppet" cut out from a picture. Roxanna combined this idea with the technique of making pictorial scenes from bits of vegetation- in this case, a strip of bark and dried firs that form a tree with a hanging swing. The doll children are lightly padded figures with embroidered cloth faces and hands, dressed in lightweight wools with tiny beads for buttons and embroidery for trimmings. They have curls of human hair (no doubt snipped from members of the family) and tiny heeled leather boots. The dog appears to be fashioned of cotton wool with stitching and paint strokes to suggest tan spots. The entire scene is mounted on dark velvet. It is no longer known whether this picture marked any particular occasion, but even great, great, great grandchildren are still charmed by it."

Hilarie told me that one of her cousins has this picture and also has one of Roxanna's quilts - but, not the one with the poem.

Hilarie had this to say about her great, great, great grandmother: "I think that she was an amazing woman and her work has lasted because it is of a quality that is rare. The work of Izannah Walker is beautiful and masterful, but there is a consciousness of the finished "product", of production itself, which of course is one reason why there are more of them around."  I couldn't agree more.

There is no doubt that Roxanna was an extremely gifted artist capable of creating exquisite pieces in different mediums. Whether it was cloth art dolls, intricate art quilts, or astonishing 3-dimensional pictures she was extremely gifted and extremely talented. She was certainly an artist who believed in herself and her art and, certainly, wasn't going to let a little rejection from a merchant get the better of her.

I have to wonder, given her immense talents, what astonishing creations she would be making given all the tools and supplies available to artists and crafters today. With the patience of a saint and eye for detail you would think that "the sky's the limit."

I am so appreciative to Hilarie for contacting me and providing me with the information on her amazing great, great, great grandmother and pictures of her astonishing work. Thank you so much, Hilarie. Your great, great, great grandmother is a true inspiration for us all.


  1. Anonymous12:06 AM

    I am so thrilled I found your information on the dolls made by Roxanna Cole. I couldn't seem to read it fast enough.The pictures are priceless and the women are just beautiful.Thank you for sharing your information and her family for allowing you to do so.Carol

  2. Carol, I'm so happy you liked the article. Roxanna was such a gifted artist. I, too, am very thankful to her great, great, great granddaughter for sharing her with all of us. Linda