Ella Smith and her Alabama Indestructable Babies
As you might suspect, I have never met an antique painted cloth doll that I didn’t love. This is especially true for Ella Gauntt Smith’s Alabama Indestructible Babies. They are lovely toys, just the right size and weight to cuddle in a young girl’s arms.
Ella Smith was an art teacher who created her Alabama Babies to be sturdy, unbreakable play things in an age of fragile and easily broken dolls. She was an interesting and enterprising woman, with a fascinating biography.
Early in 2007 I was asked by Doll Crafter and Costuming magazine to write a three part article about Alabama Babies, that included full instructions and patterns for making a reproduction doll. The series appeared in the March, April and May 2007 issues of the magazine.
The following is an excerpt from the March article. I’m running it here especially for Martha, one of my Izannah class members, who is also keenly interested in Alabama Babies and for anyone else who loves them as I do.
Making An Alabama Indestructible Doll
by Paula Walton
Level of Difficulty: High
Alabama Indestructible Dolls were made by Ella Smith and a small group of women employees in Roanoke, Alabama from 1905 until 1932. In 1904, Mrs. Smith traveled to St. Louis, Missouri to show her dolls at the St. Louis Exposition. Her dolls won a first place classification at the Exposition, and the following year on March 31, 1905, she filed an application for her first doll patent. Her patent number 800,333 was granted on September 26, 1905. Mrs. Smith went on to obtain a number of additional patents for improvements and changes to the design of her dolls.
This is the first in a series of three articles that will give you patterns and instructions for making a 22-inch tall Alabama Indestructible doll in the style of Ella Smith’s earliest dolls. The following is Miss Ella’s (as she was commonly known) description of her dolls as printed in one of her catalogs in her own words:
“My dolls are all made of the best white goods – no dyes used, as they rot the goods and cause the dolls to wear out sooner. They are all carefully Hand-made. Hand-painted with pure oil paints and can be washed like children. There is no glue or paste used in them. They are stuffed with cotton and sewed with the best thread. No cheap stuff used in the make- up of these dolls. They do not break from being dropped or thrown about. They have been tested by five years’ use. When they are worn and need new hands or feet or painting again, they may be sent back here to the shop and made to look like a new doll for a small sum. Our dolls may be provided with glass eyes, but we prefer the painted eyes – they look like life, and then there is no possible chance of a child to pick the fabric from around the eyes. If we were to use glass eyes we would have to cut the fabric from over the eyes and that would leave a new edge, and when the dolls faces were washed the edges would become rough and ugly around the eyes: and the glass eyes are only a shell and so very easily broken. These dolls are just what the people want if they are looking for something good and substantial, and every child is so glad to get one of these dolls. They look so much like a baby when dressed in long or short clothes, and when the dear little girl drops one of these dolls she don’t have to cry her little heart out because dolly has a broken head. She can just pick her up and go on happy and gay, because these dolls do not break from being dropped. Any one of these dolls may be provided with a wig, but most all people like the painted heads – they look so neat – and the wigs become tangled after a while; but they may be taken off and the heads painted the same as the others. These dolls are painted to represent all races of people. We mean to try to please all people as near as we can. We want our dolls to give perfect satisfaction.”
VISIT MT WEBSITE WWW.ASWEETREMEMBRANCE.COM TO PURCHASE MY ALABAMA BABY REPRODUCTION DOLL MAKING CLASS BY MAIL.
Up until now I haven’t sold individual patterns for my Alabama Babies. To start with, just after the articles were published, I didn’t want to infringe or compete with the Doll Crafter and Costuming articles, even though the magazine only had limited rights to the articles and patterns and I retained the copy rights. Later I hesitated to make the patterns available because the dolls and the pattern pieces are large enough that they require printing on oversize paper, which makes producing the patterns more difficult and expensive.
However I began to rethink selling copies of this pattern after I advised Martha to look for back issues containing the articles. I’ve done a little checking around and it doesn’t look like it is easy to find these issues. In the intervening years Doll Crafter and Costuming has ceased publication. A quick look on eBay showed other Doll Crafter and Costuming issues (but not March, April or May 2007) for sale from $9.99 each. Another issue is that the patterns included in the April 2007 and May 2007 issues of Doll Crafter and Costuming were printed at 50%.
So I have updated and revised my original instructions to include an option for making bare feet, as well as the iconic painted shoes that Alabama Babies are so well know for. I’ve added more than twice as many color how-to photos to the step by step guide and had full size pattern pieces printed (so you won’t have to go to the trouble and expense of making enlargements).
Full support and unlimited questions and answers are included with this 30 page tutorial, as they are with all of my patterns and classes. Making a reproduction Alabama Baby is easier than making a reproduction Izannah Walker doll, but it is still a complex and challenging undertaking, so it’s nice to know that you will have some help along the way if you need it:) I have also started a class member only Ning site, with bonus materials, extra photos and the opportunity for you to interact and “converse” with other class members.
Read More About Alabama Babies
The Alabama Baby Indestructible Doll 1899-1932 by Bonnie Gamble Ballinger
Freeman’s Dolls For Collectors – Encyclopedia American Dolls by Ruth S. Freeman
American Rag Dolls – Straight From The Heart by Estelle Patino
A Celebration of American Dolls From The Collections Of The Strong Museum by Dorothy A. McGonagle
A short Alabama Baby love story: As a romantic footnote to this posting I have to add that my husband, Brian, gave me my first Alabama Baby as a Christmas gift. I was so utterly captivated by that original doll that he searched for others, which he presented to me on subsequent Christmases and birthdays, interspersing them with several Martha Chase dolls. Just another reason why Alabama Babies are dear to my heart :)