As doll collectors most of us know and love the rare, iconic American cloth dolls created by Izannah Walker. Her dolls have become the “holy grail” for many collectors, who often spend a lifetime searching for one of her amazing dolls. Izannah’s dolls have a distinctive quality that makes them instantly recognizable, but not all of us know much about the woman who created these dolls that bridge the gap between a child’s beloved doll and outstanding examples of American folk art.
What I love most about Izannah Walker’s dolls is that they are made using simple materials that were transformed into a sturdy, practical child’s toy using ingenious construction techniques. That we now view her dolls as art confirms the genius of her design and her master craftsmanship. Izannah Walker, along with her sister Jane and aunt, Jane Hintz, managed to capture an evocative moment of American history and very firmly convey a sense of their time and place in a child’s toy.
There are no known photographs of Izannah Walker and details about her life are tantalizingly brief. The following timeline is an excerpt from my September, 2017 article in “Antique Doll Collector” magazine. I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about the life of one of America’s greatest doll makers.
Izannah Walker Timeline
1817- Izannah Walker was born September 25, 1817. Izannah was the third and youngest surviving child of Gilbert Walker and his third wife Sarah (Sally) Swasey. Izannah had six older half-siblings from Gilbert Walker’s marriage to his second wife (who died in 1808).
1824 – Izannah and her older sisters, Ann Richmond Walker and Jane Hintz Walker go to stay with their mother’s family at the family homestead in Somerset, MA.
1825 – After their mother and infant brother died, followed shortly by their father’s death, the three orphaned girls continued to stay with their maternal relatives. The Swasey family included their aunt Jane and her husband, Captain Anthony Hintz, who were childless. The Hintz’s had purchased the Swasey family home and property from Jane Swasey Hintz’s parents. The elder Swasays, Capt. and Mrs. Hintz and the three Walker sisters lived together in Somerset, MA on the Swasey homestead, which had been in the family for nearly a century.
1839 – Capt. Hintz writes his will leaving the original Swasey homestead and adjoining orchard to his wife Jane Hintz. He stipulated that after Jane’s death, the estate should go to their nieces, Jane and Isannah Walker. (Izannah’s name was often misspelled throughout her life.)
1845 – Izannah’s niece, Mary Helen Smith Holbrook, was born in New London, CT in 1843. In later years Mary’s daughter, Helen Holbrook Robertson, stated that her great-aunt Izannah began making dolls as early as 1845 when her mother, Mary Helen Smith Holbrook, was a child.
1850 – 1853 – Sometime during this period Izannah leaves Somerset Village, MA and moves to Central Falls, RI.
1855 – A doll is purchased from Izannah Walker for young Martha Jenks Wheaton Chase, who was born in 1851. A photograph of a letter, written by Martha Chase’s daughter, Anna M. Chase Sheldon, stating that her mother’s doll was purchased from Izannah Walker in 1855 is included in “A Treasure Indeed” by Grace Dyar, published in the UFDC Region 14 1981 souvenir booklet “Memory Lane”.
1865 – The Rhode Island State Census lists Izannah Walker’s occupation as “Doll Maker”.
The Massachusetts State Census shows Jane Walker and Jane Hintz (Izannah & Jane’s aunt) as “Doll Manufactures”.
1860’s – At the March 18, 1957 meeting of the Somerset (MA) Historical Society Flora B. Wood presented a paper about her mother, Augusta Louise Marble, who was born in Somerset in 1861. Excerpts from Flora B Wood’s paper were reprinted in The Spectator newspaper on October 26, 1994. “When my mother was a little girl in the 1860’s many of the little girls of Somerset had a Jane Walker doll. I have a picture of my mother holding one. They were handsome and lifelike and made by Miss Jane Walker, who lived on Main Street in the Village. They were made in several sizes and sold for up to 10 dollars.” The U.S. dollar experienced an average inflation rate of 2.12% per year between 1861 and 2017. $10 in the year 1861 is worth $264.18 in 2017.
1873 – June 12, 1873 Izannah Walker applies for a United States patent for an invention related “to the manufacture of dolls; and it consists, mainly, in the secondary or double stuffing next the external or painted layer, whereby, with a sufficiently soft surface, the tendency of the paint to crack or scale off is obviated.” Her patent is granted on November 4, 1873.
1845 – 1886 In the 1952 book Your Dolls and Mine by Janet Johl Izannah’s great- niece, Helen Holbrook Robertson, was quoted as saying “From 1845, when the first doll is said to have been made, until she died in 1886, Izannah Walker carried on the business, not securing a patent until persuaded to do so by friends in 1873.” Additional information that Helen Holbrook Robertson related to mid-20th century doll collector, Lila Singsen, whose conversation was reported in Your Dolls and Mine, was that the earliest dolls were made for friends, and that as the business grew, Izannah put her three sisters to work painting the dolls’ faces.
1888 – February 15, 1888 Izannah Walker dies of consumption, now known as pulmonary tuberculosis. She is buried, alongside her best friend Emeline Whipple, in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, RI which is not far from her final home in Central Falls, RI.
1899 – On October 6, 1899, Jane Hintz Walker dies and is buried in the Palmer Street Cemetery in Somerset, MA. According to cemetery records, Jane purchased her own burial plot. There is a four-sided monument on Jane’s grave that includes the birth and death dates of her grandparents, Jerathmel Bowers Swasey and Sarah Hellon Swasey, her aunts Parthenia Palmer Swasey and Jane Hellon Swasey Hintz, her uncle by marriage Anthony Hintz, her parents Gilbert Walker and Sarah Swasey Walker, and two of her siblings Anthony Hintz Walker (age 11 days) and Izannah Frankford Walker.
* Izannah Walker historian Monica Bessette is currently working on a book about Izannah Walker’s life, family and friends. So more information about Izannah’s life should be forthcoming in the near future! I personally can hardly wait ❤