8 Jan 2023
May 4, 2022. I bought Antonia (aka Toni) at Whistlestop Antiques for $21. She was a wreck, with frowzy hair, a ratty dress, and loose limbs (see image above). But I've been teaching myself to look beyond the superficials. She had all her fingers and toes. Her sleep-eyes still worked. Her face was lovable. And, most importantly, she was labeled. The embossing on her back and head told me she was an Ideal Doll, model P-90, made in the USA—an identity I can research!
The Ideal Toy company manufactured the hard plastic, 14-inch P-90 from 1949-1953 [reference].
She was designed by the iconic doll creator and sculptor Bernard Lipfert. (He may have also sculpted the face for my childhood Madame Alexander bride doll.)
She was a "Toni" doll marketed to young girls facing the the Toni Home Permanent rite of passage. The doll's nylon wig was meant to be permed (with a sugar-water solution) and styled just like a real girl's hair. Here's the link to a fun advertising video: VINTAGE 1954 TONI HAIR PRODUCT PREMIUM OFFER - TONI DOLL.
Pause here to let your mind wander back to the early 1950s—crowded schools and conformity, terrifying polio epidemics... and all-afternoon, stinky home permanents to lock in the required feminine curls.
Imagine a seven-year-old about to get her first perm—"Jeanie." Her doting grandmother wants to help her through the ordeal, so spends the $5 on a Toni doll. Clearly, the doll—let's call her Antonia—was well-loved, played with till her inner rubber band was all stretched out and her head lolled forward. Her hair was brushed and styled so much that it was a poofy mess. But Antonia was never broken, never balded.
At a certain age, Jeanie or her mother packed Antonia away as she went off to college or married the boy next door. Did Jeanie have a daughter who only had eyes for Barbie? Did Antonia stay packed away till Jeanie's son moved her to a care facility and her possessions were scooped up into a yard sale?
No doubt, a collectibles dealer snatched up Antonia for a couple of bucks to put in her booth at Whistlestop.
And so—my turn to play.
May 7. I decided to tackle her mess of hair first. Searches suggested bathing her hair in fabric softener. I DIY'd it with diluted hair conditioner and a little vinegar. It looked good (see image below), although it quickly got wild again. For the future, I can try actually setting it on tiny rollers. Another option is to replace her wig (hair glued to a cloth cap) with a readily available modern repro.
But actually, I like her wild hair. Early counterculture, right?
May 24. After much anxious research, I got a "kit" for restringing a P-90 doll—basically a diagram and a couple of stiff rubber bands—from dollhospital.com. The project tested my manual dexterity and block intelligence. (See image below. I blacked out her torso because, you know, the internet is weird.)
The purchased rubber band didn't fit her interior hooks, so in the end I resorted to a rubber band from my junk drawer. She's a little looser than she should be, but she at least sits up on her own now (image below).
Then, she got a gentle scrub with Gojo hand cleaner. Her face is brighter, but her one remaining eyebrow disappeared. I have to figure out how to draw it back in.
For anyone interested in playing with old dolls, I recommend The Handbook of Doll Repair & Restoration—lots of cool info!
May 25. Okay, Toni needed clothes. I didn't want to re-create the 1950s, but didn't have a "look" in mind either. She seemed patient. And just the right size for helping me learn something new.
I grabbed some fabric from my stash and set out to make patterns for a petticoat and a high-waisted dress with sleeves. My only rule: stay traditional—no elastic; no velcro.
May 30. OMG, I wasn't prepared. Math. Geometry. Curves. Spatial problem-solving. I'm used to just draping fabric around a doll and wonkily hand-stitching it in place.
Some books helped. Two-Hour Dolls' Clothes by Anita Louis Crane gave me the "Ellen" pattern, which had to be adjusted to the Toni body. Patternmaking for Fashion Design by Helen Joseph-Armstrong helped me puzzle through the curvy relationship between sleeve and bodice. And why skirt waists and hems are curved.
I dug out my Clover Mini Iron because, as you know, all sewing is pressing.
May 31. Work in progress (image below).
Jun. 4. Her dress and drawstring petticoat completed, I decided she must have leather shoes. Kay DeGaray's "Doll Boot Tutorial" video inspired me and I downloaded her detailed instructions.
Jim's old suede jacket was donated to the cause.
Naturally, the bootmaking was harder than the video made it look. More spatial intelligence challenges!
In the end, I loved the little brass grommets for the laces (skill aced) and the polymer clay soles (skill aced), but hated that I didn't or couldn't smooth out the edges of the suede where it joined the soles (skill needs much improvement).
Jun. 6. Work in progress (image below).
Jun 12. Toni is finally dressed! (See image below.) But, come on, with those beautiful boots to take her on the road, she needs a handbag.
Jun. 15. Suede messenger bag, done! I actually drew out a pattern first—since it finally sunk in how much that helps, duh. Definitely a best practice! The strap turned out a little short, so a added some beads. Now it's slightly too long. (See image below.)
Toni's first photo shoot (image below). But wait, where is her hat? She needs something to hold that mop down.
Jun. 21. The toe of a sock makes a nice watch cap. An unfinished embroidery sampler from a thrift store provided the flower.
The thing about dolls is that they provide a pleasant learning experience for kids of all ages. Look how many skills I had to use over the course of six weeks getting her this far.
It was a time when my early mornings were spent pounding away at the last revisions of Kitty's People, followed by helping my husband get through his morning routine and doing household chores. For a couple of hours every afternoon, I entered a completely different space.
Antonia still needs work: eyebrows and hair! And I might try a more traditional, lacy girl's dress. She's a sweetheart.
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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.