Many articles have been written about Izannah Walker and her hauntingly beautiful, iconic cloth dolls. I have found all of them extremely interesting and well worth reading. However, it occurred to me that none of the articles that I have seen were written by someone who has actually made full size reproductions of Izannah’s pressed cloth heads and has experienced first hand the joys and frustrations of this unique type of doll making. So I’ve decided to join the ranks of doll lovers and historians who have gone before me in writing about this fascinating woman and her exceptional dolls.
It feels like I have loved Izannah Walker dolls for my entire life, although I know that can’t be true. When I look back, I think that I first became aware of her dolls right around the time that we moved to New England, 22 years ago. I do know that I have loved, and always wanted to own, antique dolls since my very early childhood. As soon as I knew that such things as really old dolls existed, I wanted one (or more!).
Izannah Walker was born in Bristol, Rhode Island on the 25th day of September in 1817. I have read there is documentation that she started making dolls in 1828. She would have been 11 years old in 1828, the same age that I was when I first learned to sew. Norma H. Robertson, Izannah Walker’s grand-niece, stated that her great aunt began making stockinette dolls in 1845 for friends, and as her business developed, she put her three sisters to work painting faces. Other research and information that I have seen states that Izannah had two sisters, plus several older half-siblings, and that Izannah, her older sister Jane and her aunt Jane Hintz were all three doll makers.
One of my favorite Izannah stories is a reminiscence by Mrs. Helen Pierce of when the Walker sisters were living on Main Street in Somerset Village, MA. Mrs. Pierce tells a tale of the Walkers hanging their dolls out on the clothesline to dry when it was too damp in the house and how the air in the neighborhood was then permeated with the smell of oil paint. I can certainly relate to that, having hung my share of dolls out on the clothesline.
The Mystery of Molds and Lessons Learned About Pressed Cloth Heads
One of the things that I find most endearing about the Walker dolls is their differences. This may be because three individual women had a hand in their construction, either working together or apart. It is also, in my opinion, a very basic fact of life when a doll maker is creating dolls with pressed cloth heads. While all of the original dolls are recognizable as Walker dolls, they do come in many sizes, from 13 to 27 inches* in height, and often have very striking differences from one another. The majority of the dolls are girls, although there are a few boy dolls and even fewer black dolls with lovely, short, nubby black wool hair.
There has been a great deal of speculation in the doll world about the number and origin of the molds Izannah Walker used to make her dolls. I can’t offer any clues about how the molds were made. Did she sculpt her own prototype heads and then have them made into metal molds? Did she hire others to create both the original sculpt and molds? Or did she commission molds from commercially available European dolls? Her patent information shows the use of a metal mold and dye, but did she always use metal molds? Is it possible that her earlier dolls were created using plaster molds, which were long established in the doll making industry at that time, and would wear out and need replacing more frequently?
What I can say with some confidence is that it is very likely that she used fewer molds than many people think. Obviously, she had to have a variety of molds for the different sized dolls that she made and it is equally obvious that her early dolls used very different molds than her later, patented dolls. What I have found when making pressed cloth heads is that heads made using the same mold will turn out quite differently from one another. When making pressed cloth heads, you do not get the same consistency as you do when casting materials, such as bisque, papier-mâché and wax, that can be poured into a mold and hardened. Izannah’s pressed cloth heads were made in sections that had to be joined together, a process that sometimes causes individual heads to come out a bit larger or smaller than each other. After the front and back sections of the head were sewn and or glued together, the head was stuffed with cotton, horsehair, sea grass or other materials. The pressed cloth heads are not rigid like the heads of a china or porcelain doll. They are somewhat flexible and their shape can be altered by how tightly the stuffing is packed into the head. All of these factors can and will change the appearance of the finished pressed cloth head.
Another point that I would like to mention here is that when studying photographs of Izannah Walker dolls, it is important to remember that the photographs do not always look the same as the doll does in person. I am by no means a professional photographer, but I am a person who takes an inordinate number of doll photos, using several different cameras and lenses. The type of lens used to take a photograph will have a big impact on how the doll looks, as will the lighting and angle from which the photo is taken. People who have only seen Izannah Walker dolls in photographs are often very surprised when they first see one of the dolls in person. The dolls are smaller and much more delicately proportioned than they often look in photos. Their eyes are not as large and their foreheads aren’t quite as curved and pronounced as people expect. I am fortunate enough to have been able to visit several museums and view dolls in person that I had previously only seen in photos and I can attest that there is a real difference. I see this same difference when I photograph both my antique Izannah Walker dolls and the reproductions of them that I make. So some Walker dolls may look more similar in person than they do when compared in photographs. Especially when they are photographs taken by different people, using different cameras, lighting, etc.
The painting style is another variable from doll to doll. Again, this may be due to more than one person wielding her brush, or it may be because when a doll maker paints a doll, each one is slightly different from the next. Even if you have never made a doll in your life, I’m sure that you can relate. Think about your signature. It is something you do over and over again. Is it exactly the same every time? When you make your favorite recipe, the one you know by heart and don’t have to look up, does it turn out just the same every time? Izannah Walker’s dolls were made over a long period of time. Even if a single person painted them all, it is natural that they would change. When I paint my dolls, the colors will vary a bit since I don’t use a “recipe” to mix my paints. Some days, I paint finer lines than others, paint better curls, make more blushing cheeks and crisper bootlaces. Such is the nature of hand made artistry and it is why Izannah Walker dolls are so well loved and enduring. The hand of the doll maker shows in each and every one of them. They are similar and yet individual works of artistry.
I like to think that the women all worked together, even when they were separated by distance (which they were during different periods in their lives). My sister and I make reproduction samplers together, even though she lives in Nebraska and I live in Connecticut. Both of us work on every sampler that we make, each doing our own part to create the final product. It would have been possible for the Walker sisters and their aunt to do the same, and I hope that they did. My sister and I enjoy working together and I’d like for the Walkers to have had the bond that shared goals and joint work brings about.
Construction Features of the Walker Dolls
Like any other reproduction-sewing project, making an Izannah Walker doll is an eye opening experience to the difference between 19th century and 21st century sewing construction. People in the 1800’s obviously viewed pattern making and sewing construction differently than we do today. The shapes of many of the pattern pieces used to make these dolls and their clothing are unfamiliar to modern seamstresses.
Izannah’s earliest dolls had heads that were made of molded and pressed cloth joined to the bodies at the neck. This is different than the later patented dolls that had molded and pressed cloth heads and shoulder plates that were glued onto the bodies. I think the early dolls are prettier than their later sisters, and they are the type of Izannah Walker dolls that I prefer to reproduce. The front of the pre-patent doll’s head is joined to the back just in front of the ears. The back of the head has a partial center seam.
Often you will see that the dolls have repaired ankles. This is because they have a seam at the ankles that connects the foot to the leg. Modern cloth dolls are seldom made this way. The dolls have narrow waists, with wide shoulders and hips. The unpainted portions of their bodies are covered with a “second skin,” which gives them a neat, finished appearance, and points to the care with which they were made.
I find all of these details intriguing. They are part of what draws me to study Izannah Walker’s dolls and have kept my interest in them so strong for many years.
Izannah Walker dolls were made using molds. That does not mean that they took less work or are less desirable than a doll that has a one-of-a-kind sculpted face. For me, understanding how the Walkers made their dolls and using those same techniques to make dolls of my own gives me an even deeper love and appreciation for the originals. Through years of experience, I know exactly why some of the dolls have that characteristic crease at the hollow of their throat, why the paint on the earliest dolls cracked and peeled, why the hands have such a wonderful shape and how to make that slight curve at the wrist. I treasure the experience, the knowledge and the insight and I would urge you to try your hand at making a doll using Izannah’s methods. It will give you a wonderful glimpse into her world and her art.
Izannah Walker managed to capture an evocative moment of American history and very firmly convey a sense of her time and place in a child’s toy. These toys continue to be treasured, loved and marveled at today.
* There are rumors of a “life-size” doll that was owned by members of the Walker family.
American Folk Dolls by Wendy Lavitt (Knopf 1982)
American Rag Dolls Straight From The Heart by Estelle Patino (Collector Books 1988)
“An American Master of Cloth” by Helen Nolan, Dolls, February 1995 (this article is about Martha Chase and only has a brief mention of Izannah Walker)
“The Art of Dolls 1700-1940” by Madeline Osborne Merrill, Doll Reader, April 1985
Cover Photo by Dorothy McGonagle, Doll News, 1989
“Dolls by Izannah Walker” by Donna C. Kaonis, Antique Doll World, September/October 1993
The Doll Collection of Helen Gage, Auction Catalogue by Marvin Cohen Auctions, December 1984
“Dolls of Rhode Island” by Carolyn Guise, Two Hundred Years of American Dolls, The New London Doll Club United Federation of Doll Clubs Region Fourteen Meeting, May 1977
Early American Dolls in Full Color, by Helen Nolan (Dover Publications 1986)
“Early American Stockinette Dolls: Part 1- Izannah Walker and Martha Chase Dolls” by Judy Beswick, The Cloth Doll, Fall 1998
Encyclopedia American Dolls by Ruth S. Freeman (Century House 1952)
“The “Holy Grail” of Early American Dolls” by Catherine Riedel, Yankee magazine, November/December 2009
“Izannah Walker – Godmother to Cloth Doll Makers” by Susan Hedrick, Soft Dolls & Animals, Summer 1998
“Izannah Walker’s Iconic Dolls” by Edyth O’Neill and Dixie Redmond, Early American Life, Christmas 2011
“An Izannah Walker Reunion” by Carol Corson, Antique Doll Collector, August 2011
“Izannah Walker: The Mystery Deepens” by Helen Nolan, Dolls, August 1994
“The Little Doll With The Little Curl” by Maurine S. Popp, The Jenny Lind Doll Club of Southern Connecticut Region 14 of The United Federation of Doll Clubs, April 1968
Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, by Miriam Formanek-Brunell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998)
“The Mystery of Izannah Walker” by Helen Nolan, Dolls, September 1993
“The Search for Izannah Walker” by Monica Bessette, Doll News, Spring 1994
“Stitches in Time” by Diane Goff, Doll Reader, July 1993
Summer in Marseilles at the Turn of the Century Auction Catalogue by Theriault’s 1993
“They’re Just Down-Home Folk” by Wendy Lavitt, Dolls, May 1993
The Treasury of Beautiful Dolls, by John Noble (Weathervane Books, 1978)
“Walker Dolls: A Family Affair” by Monica Bessette, Doll News, Summer 1998
This article and the accompanying images, like all posts and photographs on this site, are copyrighted by Paula Walton and may not be published or reproduced in any form without the express written consent of the author.