Theories of the First Topsy-Turvy Doll

The general consensus seems to be that these dolls were primarily for enslaved children, but the purpose of the dolls isn’t clearly understood.
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Plantation cabin in Louisiana. (Photo: Lindsay Douglas/Shutterstock)

Plantation cabin in Louisiana. (Photo: Lindsay Douglas/Shutterstock)

Lisa Hix has written a really nice story, “Why Black Dolls Matter,” for Collectors Weekly. The history of the topsy-turvy doll really caught my interest. The one below is characteristic. Believed to be from the 1870s, it is the head and torso of a black and a white doll, sewed together in the middle with a long skirt. The doll can be flipped from one side to the other.

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The general consensus seems to be that these dolls were primarily for enslaved children, but the purpose of the dolls isn’t clearly understood.

Hix quotes one of the founders of the National Black Doll Museum, Debra Britt, who says that the dolls enabled enslaved children to have something forbidden: a doll that looked like them. “When the slave master was gone,” she explained, “the kids would have the black side, but when the slave master was around, they would have the white side.”

At Wikipedia, though, the entry for the dolls cites the author of American Folk Dolls, who makes the opposite claim:

It has recently been suggested that these dolls were often made for Black children who desired a forbidden white doll (a baby like the ones their mothers cared for); they would flip the doll to the black side when an overseer passed them at play.

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, author of Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory, suggests that the dolls might not have been disallowed at all. Since enslaved black women often cared for their own children and the children of their white captors, perhaps the doll was designed to socialize young enslaved girls into their future roles as mothers to children of both races. According to Historical Folk Toys, the black doll sometimes was dressed in a headscarf and the white doll in antebellum-style dress, supporting Wallace-Sanders’ theory that the idea was to socialize girls into their role.

And, of course, we have even less of an idea of how the children themselves thought of these dolls or where their imagination led them.

This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Theories of the First Topsy-Turvy Doll.”

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