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Nancy Hanks Doll: An Historic American Girl

German bisque doll with her trunk of clothes and accessories, c. 1908.
(Museum object #1966.408.1)

Lucien and Mary Esther Hanks of Madison, Wisconsin wanted their children to have the best of everything, so it is not surprising that they bought one of the best dolls at FAO Schwartz in New York for their infant daughter Sybil Anna Hanks, who was born on March 5, 1908. The doll, who Mary Hanks named “Nancy Hanks,” came in a beautiful red leather trunk, complete with a full set of clothes including dresses, coats, underwear, hats, socks, shoes, and a nightgown, as well as important accessories like four handkerchiefs in a box, jewelry, purse, hairpins, hair ornaments, a mirror, and curling iron. Luckily for the Wisconsin Historical Society, Sybil never played with the doll and eventually donated it in pristine condition to the Society’s museum in 1966.

Before becoming merchandise at FAO Schwartz, “Nancy Hanks” began her life in Germany. Doll manufacturers Kammer & Reinhardt of Waltershausen, Thurginia made the doll’s composition body and then added a ceramic bisque head produced at the nearby Simon & Halbig porcelain factory. To make her body parts Kammer & Reinhardt mixed sawdust with glue, pouring the resulting liquid into molds and leaving it there until dried. “Nancy” is made up of eleven separate composition parts that are connected inside with elastic string. To make her extra special, Kammer & Reinhardt placed wooden ball joints at her shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, and knees.

Most doll heads in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, like “Nancy’s,” bore the same “Dolly Face.” This standard face had been modeled on actress and international beauty Lillian Russell (1861-1922). In 1909 Kammer & Reinhardt began experimenting with a whole new line of doll faces based on actual babies and children. The popularity of these new “character dolls” quickly surpassed those with “dolly faces.” The Hanks family purchased “Nancy” just as her “dolly face” was about to go out of style.

Since being at the Historical Society “Nancy” has been on exhibition many times, but she became nationally famous when Pleasant Company (now American Girl) began featuring her on the back cover of its doll catalog from 1987 to 1990. Pleasant Rowland, the founder of this Middleton, Wisconsin doll company, saw “Nancy” for the first time a little over a year after opening her business in 1985. Next to the doll’s image in the catalog Ms. Rowland wrote that when she discovered this “beautiful porcelain doll” tucked gently inside its leather trunk, “it served as a powerful reminder of why I had begun the [American Girl doll] collection, and what I hoped it would accomplish.”

[SOURCES: Coleman, Dorothy, Elizabeth and Evelyn. The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Dolls. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1968.; Herlocher, Dawn. 200 Years of Dolls, 2nd Edition. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002.; Pleasant Company catalog, Holiday 1990.]

Posted on December 22, 2005

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