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 ❤
Thank you Izannah Walker for inspiring me with your beautiful, intricate painted cloth dolls. For being an enterprising 19th century woman who was able to support herself in a male dominated world. For being the first woman to be granted a United States patent related to doll making. You have changed my life!
You still have time to email me your Birthday Greetings! Send them to email@example.com. Everyone who sends is a Izannah Walker 200th Birthday Message and photo will be entered in a drawing to win a special birthday present of Izannah Walker themed goodies ❤
As I’m sure almost all of you reading this know, September 25th will mark the 200th anniversary of the day Izannah Walker was born. As a fun way to celebrate the occasion I would like to invite you all to email me a short birthday message along with a photograph of your Izannah Walker doll, whether it is an antique original, a reproduction doll that I have made for you, or a doll that you have made yourself in tribute to Izannah’s dolls!
I’m posting this early so that everyone who is interested in participating will have plenty of time to coax their dolls into posing for photos. Please send your photo and birthday greeting to firstname.lastname@example.org later than September 18th. I will post all of the photos and their accompanying messages here on my Izananh Walker Journal as part of my annual Izannah Walker birthday celebration.
My dolls and I are very much looking forward to hearing from you and getting a chance to see what some of our absent friends have been up to lately. ❤ ❤ ❤
The issue is SOLD OUT! I just received a sneak peek of the September issue of Antique Doll Collector! It is going to be a wonderful Izannah-filled issue!!! If you are not already a subscriber to the magazine, you may want to hurry up and order a subscription! See if they will let you start with the August 2017 issue so that you can read the great article Joy Harrington wrote about an amazing mid-19th century doll wardrobe in her collection, A Mid 19th Century Wardrobe for a New England Girl. While the actual wardrobe isn’t an Izannah Walker wardrobe, it is all from the same time period and you do not want to miss a chance to see it! I can’t wait to read Joy’s article “Izannah Aprons” A Closer Look in the September issue. ❤ I have it on good authority that there will be at least one additional article about Izannah Walker dolls in Antique Doll Collector during 2017. ❤ ❤ ❤
On Saturday I hosted the May meeting of my doll club, the Jenny Lind chapter of the United Federation of Doll Clubs. The topic of our meeting was Izannah Walker dolls. Given the topic, you probably aren’t too surprised that the meeting was at my house this month. 🙂
It was a wonderful afternoon and I really enjoyed having the Jenny Lind members here. They’ve all been incredibly nice to me and I was happy to be able to repay the hospitality that they have shown me. Best of all two antique Izannah Walker dolls came along to the meeting! My girls were thrilled at the chance to see their sisters and have a family reunion.
Once everyone arrived, we began the day with a business meeting. After sorting through all the current club issues, we took a break for an outdoor lunch on the patio. Here is a copy of the menu…
A 19th Century New England Picnic
Pounded Cheese with Crackers
Salad of Field Peas and Early Greens
Baked Ham and Pumpkin Biscuits with Cherry Relish and Mustard
Vanilla and Violet Pound Cake
Rhubarb Pie with Whipped Cream
Dried Apple Bread Pudding
Violet Iced Tea
Iced Tea with Fresh Mint
Eli Whitney’s Grandmother’s Ginger Cookies
to nibble on your journey home…
After lunch, we moved back inside for my program on Izannah Walker’s dolls. I gave a brief over view of Izannah’s life and how she made her dolls. Then I told a bit about the Izannahs in my collection and learned about the two visiting dolls as well. We talked about other collectors we know who have Izannah Walker dolls, then finished the day with a trip out to my studio for those who wanted to see my reproduction dolls in progress and find out what they look like “underneath it all”.
This article was the basic core of my lecture on Saturday, with many added bits and pieces along the way. If you look down at my sources, you will see that one of them was an article written in 1968 by Maurine Popp of the Jenny Lind Doll Club!!! Several of the members recall going to the auction when Maurine’s collection was sold.
A Doll Maker’s Reflections on Izannah Walker and her Dolls; With Insights on Pressed Cloth Heads By Paula Walton
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 firsthand 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, 24 years ago. I do know that since my very early childhood I have loved and wanted to own antique dolls. As soon as I knew that such things as really old dolls existed I longed for one (or more!).
Izannah Walker and her dolls hold a very special place in doll history. On November 4, 1873, she was the first woman to receive a United States patent for making dolls.
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 art.
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.
Sources for some of the information used in this article and additional reading:
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 http://www.izannahwalker.com, are copyrighted by Paula Walton and may not be published or reproduced in any form without the express written consent of the author.
Even though I was rushing to beat the rain and falling darkness, I had the best time yesterday taking photos of this doll. It was great fun to “play dress up” with her. Her extensive wardrobe includes three dresses, two chemises, two pairs of pantalettes, two petticoats, an apron and a real coral bead necklace. If you’d like to add more pieces to her wardrobe I can make her hand made leather shoes, a cotton sunbonnet and a straw bonnet.
This year the girls and I baked a pound cake for Izannah’s birthday using a c.1754 receipt that I found in The Williamsburg Art of Cookery. This receipt is old enough to have been a well loved family favorite by the time Izannah was born. Here’s the recipe so that you can bake one too.
Beat one Cup of Butter to a Cream, slowly beat in one and one third Cups of Sugar. Add one Teaspoonful of Mace and beat in five whole Eggs, adding them one at a time. Sift in two Cups of Flour, turn at once into a greased and floured Pan or Mould and bake slowly for one Hour.*
*I baked my cakes in a 300 degree oven, 30 minutes for the doll size cakes and two hours for the larger version.