Half-Dolls, Wholly Intriguing 

By Karen Parr-Moody


Half dolls belong to that niche of antiques which could seem so utterly frivolous. Why, oh why, would a lady of the early 1900s want to decorate even the lowliest of objects with a beautiful, not to mention delicate, porcelain figurine? Because women love to decorate everything, that's why. 


There is something amusing about the utilitarianism of the objects that half dolls graced. Pin cushions were a top choice. Then there were the whisk brooms, which were popular for a tiny window of history, the 1920s through 1930s. These unglamorous items were used for such mundane tasks as sweeping crumbs from the dining table or brushing lint from clothing. Half-dolls were also used to adorn tea cozies, because what tea kettle should be left dull and dreary? Then there were various items that would decorate a lady's dressing table, such as powder boxes and powder puffs, which were topped by a half doll. 


Most half dolls are small, between two and six inches in height, and the majority of these dolls were produced between 1900 and the 1920s. The earliest half dolls were expensive and were considered an extravagant possession. After WWII, they were relegated to the history bins. 


At GasLamp, Juaune Horton has a nice collection of half dolls in showcase S-553, which she shares with her husband, Dave. In her personal collection at home, she has a Spanish dancer, a flapper, and a child with its arms held away from it. One of the stances in which half dolls were made was that of the arms being held away from the body, as seen on the Mata Hari-style flapper in the photo, above right, which is in Horton's showcase ($199.50).  


"The ones that have their hands away from their bodies are worth more because they're delicate," says Horton. Since they are less likely to have survived the decades intact, antique half dolls with at least one arm held fully away from the body are more valuable that those with the arms flush to the side (in the photo at right, the German-made flapper doll with the flush arms is $74.50). This value also relates to the complexity of the mold used to make the half doll. In general, the more complex the mold used, the more valuable the half doll. Those made with arms modeled completely away from the body of the half doll generally required more complex molds to make.

Most half dolls were produced in Germany, by firms such as Dressel & Kister, F. W. Goebel, Ernst, Bohne & Sohne, Heubach, Hertwig, and Sitzendorf Porcelain Factory (Sitzendorfer Porzellanfabrik). France, Italy, and the United States also had some dolls in the market, and Japan put out some inexpensive models.


The Carl Schneider factory (also known as Carl Schneider's Erben) was one of the largest producers of half dolls. The factory closed in 1974 after being open since 1861. It was this factory that began to produce, around 1915, an erotic novelty half body nude porcelain doll.


In the photo, left, the porcelain half doll with the brown hair done in an Art Nouveau style is from the German company Sitzendorf Porcelain Factory (Sitzendorfer Porzellanfabrik). This factory made half dolls of exceptional quality. It is easy to see that the sculpting of this half doll's facial features is sharp, a mark of quality, and the painting is precise and well done. Her sculpted brown hair is decorated with flowers ($120; S-553). Her compatriot here is also a lovely German half doll, but she is done up with a Madame Pompadour inspired hairstyle ($149.50; S-553). This was not an uncommon style of doll of the genre, as a number of them have elaborately sculpted gray hair, sometimes accented by a ribbon.







In the photo, right, is a trio of half dolls that were once used as whisk brooms, with their original fine straw. These are from the 1920s, when it became very popular to own half dolls that were more modern in appearance. These displayed bobs and flapper attire, but often did not have quite the same quality of design as the earlier half dolls, as they were mass produced. The doll in the center was made in Japan ($64.50), while the ones on the sides are from Germany (brunette doll, $49.50; blonde doll, $44.50; all at S-553). 










There are many dolls that are related to the half doll. At left is a bathing beauty pin cushion doll ($149.50). While not technically a "half," this doll still fits into the genre due to being used on a pin cushion. 







In the photo, right, is a figural German perfume bottle from the 1920s to 1930s ($49.50). Perfume bottles were another popular way to use half dolls, as were powder boxes and trinket boxes for jewelry. 


Half dolls are charming collectibles. With ruffles, hats, feathers, and over-the-top hairdos, they certainly brought an air of elegance to a lady's otherwise mundane household chores. They also added some elegance to the lady's boudoir when seen as perfume bottles and trinket boxes. Certainly more utilitarian than a child’s toy, half dolls served the early 20th century household well, bringing some much-needed glamour into a woman's daily life.

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