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Ella Wheeler Wilcox Doll

Doll depicting Wisconsin poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox made by Milwaukee artist
Joan (Beringer) Pripps, 1947-1948.

(Museum object #2007.139.19)

Joan M. Beringer knew from an early age she would be an artist and, after studying at the Milwaukee Art Institute and Mount Mary College (also located in Milwaukee), she established herself as a successful portrait painter. A woman bustling with energy Beringer worked weekends at a florist shop and in her spare time made doll figurines. She had begun making dolls depicting historic or ethnic costumes in 1931 when she was only seventeen and by 1939 had completed over 170. In October 1947 Beringer conceived the idea of making doll figurines of prominent Wisconsin women as a way to celebrate Wisconsin's state centennial the following year. When she was done, Joan had made 70 dolls.. Of the surviving 41 dolls, one depicts Ella Wheeler Wilcox, a prominent 19th century poet and novelist, who grew up on a farm in Westport, Dane County, Wisconsin.

Ella Wheeler was born November 5, 1850 in Johnstown, Rock County, Wisconsin. Before her birth, Ella's mother Sarah (Pratt) Wheeler announced the child would be a girl, an author, and a world traveler. During June 1852 the Wheeler family moved to a farm in Westport, where Ella attended the local one-room schoolhouse and excelled at writing, just as her mother had prophesized. A precocious child, Ella wrote an eleven-chapter novel when she was nine, and bound it in wallpaper. At age fourteen, she submitted a prose-sketch to the New York Mercury, which published it. In 1867 Ella's parents sent her to the Female College in Madison, a part of the University of Wisconsin. Finding that she did not like schoolwork and wanted to spend all of her time writing, she left after only one semester.

Ella's professional writing career began in Milwaukee where she worked briefly as a magazine editor. While there she became active in the temperance movement and in 1872 the National Temperance Society published her first book of poems, Drops of Water. In 1876 she began to gain national recognition when her book-length poem Maurine was published, but Ella really became famous in 1883 when her controversial collection Poems of Passion came out, which was deemed by some to be immoral and obscene. The same year Ella published what was to become her most famous poem in the New York Sun. It begins:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you
Weep, and you weep alone...

On May 2, 1884 Ella Wheeler married Robert Wilcox, a silver salesman from Meriden, Connecticut. Immediately after the wedding the couple moved to Meriden and Ella would never again call Wisconsin home. She would publish voraciously over the course of her life (65 books alone) and travel the world. During World War I, she ventured to France to comfort American soldiers. During her trip she suffered a nervous breakdown and went to England to recover. Shortly after returning home, Wilcox's doctors discovered she had a cancerous tumor. She fought the disease and continued to write to the end. She died on October 31, 1919.

Joan Beringer's representation depicts Ella in the early bloom of her fame, while she still lived in Wisconsin and before her marriage. Joan's notes state that the dress represents the year 1882 and that Ella is "in a yellow evening gown—her favorite color—and carrying a lily—a peculiarity she enjoyed."

Throughout 1948 Beringer lectured on the prominent women of Wisconsin, using her dolls to illustrate her presentation. The next year she married Norman Pripps, a heavy equipment operator, and moved to his land in Springstead, Iron County, Wisconsin. Norman had a cabin there that they converted into "The Studio in the Woods," an art shop and tourist attraction. They built a small home next to the cabin and lived there for the next 46 years. Both died in 2005, Norman in April and Joan in December.

A generous donation by Pleasant Rowland brought the surviving dolls to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

[Sources: Joan Beringer Pripps scrapbook, courtesy of Richard McCoy; Norman Pripps obituary, The Park Falls Herald, May 2, 2005; Roberts, James F. "Ella Wheeler Wilcox: The 'Solitude' Poet," Badger Books Quarterly, Summer 1999; Walters, David Arthur. "Ella Wheeler Wilcox" webpage at, 2000; Milton House Museum Historic Site webpage at]


Posted on February 28, 2008

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