Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2001

Depression-era dolls bring history to life

July 15, 2001


During the Depression years, President Franklin Roosevelt tried to jump-start the nation's economy with vast public projects that employed thousands of Americans who desperately needed jobs.

But his Works Progress Administration commonly referred to as "WPA" supported the arts and education, too, in many projects that are less recognized and less remembered today.

Members of the Lawrence Doll Club of Kansas and the Leavenworth Doll Club hope to remedy that.

"Most people associate the WPA with road construction and bridges," said Helene Miller of Tonganoxie, a member of the Leavenworth club. "They think it was only the men at work. But Roosevelt put everyone back to work."

One WPA program in particular called upon the skills of many women, primarily in the Midwest: Museum Project No. 6051.

This program during the mid- to late 1930s and early 1940s employed artists and craftspersons who created hundreds of finely detailed plaster and cloth dolls for use as teaching tools in classrooms, libraries and elsewhere.

Educational artwork

The dolls, which generally are 10 inches to 12 inches tall, were designed to represent different historical eras and the people of foreign nations.

The Lawrence and Leavenworth doll clubs will spotlight the handiwork of these artists in a special program from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass.

Club members have mounted a collection of 87 WPA dolls owned by the Watkins museum that will be exhibited and discussed during a "Know Your Antiques" session on the museum's third floor.

"It's a great way to recruit new members who are interested in dolls of all eras," said Nancy Helmstadter of Lawrence. She has been a member of the Lawrence Doll Club for more than 20 years and serves on the board of the Watkins Museum.

Miller, Polly Reed and Billie Aye will speak about 1930s memorabilia, and Aye will present a slide show about a collection of Milwaukee WPA cloth dolls and their wardrobes.

Reed will discuss the dolls in the Watkins exhibit, and Miller will give a summary talk, followed by a time for questions from the audience.

The dolls will remain on display for two months and can be viewed during regular museum hours, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

A diverse array

The dolls in the Watkins collection were found in storage in 1981 at Kansas University, according to club members.

"This is a really fine collection because of the condition it's in," said Helmstadter, pointing out the carefully painted facial features of the figurines as she unwrapped them from tissue paper.

Members are hard-pressed to pick favorites from among the dolls, clothed in a diverse array of historical costumes and foreign garb.

"I think they're all beautiful in their own way," said Aye, who lives in Tonganoxie.

Most of the dolls that are now in museum collections throughout the state come from libraries and schools that purchased them in the 1940s. These days, club members say, WPA dolls can bring $200 per pair.

The dolls that will be featured in the Watkins Museum exhibit have historical value, Aye said.

"They represent an era when WPA programs put people back to work and Roosevelt was trying to revive the arts in this country," she said.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.