“No Longer Hidden: Black Cloth Dolls 1870‱930,” an exhibition of black cloth dolls from the collection of Pat Hatch, a Harvard resident, opens Friday, March 30, at the Harvard Historical Society with an opening celebration from 6 to 9 pm including talks by Hatch and curator Roben Campbell. The exhibit is on view through May 13.
Harvard resident Pat Hatch saw her first black cloth doll in a friend’s antique shop in 1973. The doll had a striking presence. She had no hair, and her features were so light as to be almost unnoticeable. She was large and soft and looked as though she had been loved very dearly by a child. Pat purchased the doll. She found another several years later and slowly her collection grew. What Pat saw in that first doll is at the heart of her collection: the dolls were made with love and had been loved greatly.
The collection of dolls illustrates the changes in the social and political fabric of America †how dolls were affected by technology †and highlights the dolls as objects of history and folk art.
The collection consists of 150 black cloth dolls that were made between 1870 and 1930, according to Campbell, who started documenting and researching the collection a year and a half ago. She found each doll strangely beautiful and different from anything she had ever seen as they all defy one’s expectation of what should come out of that time period.
Very few books have been written on cloth dolls dating to the Nineteenth Century and next to nothing has been written on black cloth dolls, Campbell said. The exhibition “No Longer Hidden” is a first step to reacquaint the public with the dolls.
Campbell’s recent background is at Fruitlands Museum doing research with manuscripts and for exhibits involving its Shaker collection last ten years or so.
“I got to know the collector Pat Hatch in that context. The experience of seeing the dolls for the first time is indescribable, they are that exceptional!” Campbell said.
The exhibit and catalog are titled “No Longer Hidden: An Exhibit of Black Cloth Dolls” because the dolls have never had a public viewing and very little has been written about the dolls of this type before now. “I have had to dig into primary sources to discover anything about their past or the context in which they were made,” Campbell said.
Both the exhibit and catalog include about 60 of the 150 dolls in Hatch’s collection and examine the dolls as part of a folk art tradition, reflecting the changes in the Nineteenth Century by new technologies in textiles, sewing traditions, and new roles for both black and white women.
Campbell calls the first period from 1870 to 1890 “The Earliest are the Finest.” Defining characteristics of these dolls are rigid interior support, firm stuffing, painted or treated cloth for durability, inset eyes of glass or brass and unusually fine clothing.
The middle period from 1890 to 1910 has been dubbed “Shoe Button and Calico.” All the dolls illustrated here are dressed in everyday calico. They were produced in great numbers but with less quality. Their defining details are shoe buttons for eyes and hair wigs of astrakhan pile. Shoe buttons were patented in 1887. Astrakhan was imported from Russia in a woven pile form and used in clothing trim.
Campbell calls the end of the tradition, “The Last Stand: The Bottle Dolls.” They are extremely simple, usually made with cotton jersey and have button eyes. Their expressions are of enduring patience and a determination.
“It is easy to read into their stance as actual bottles with their heads tilted a reservation about what the future will hold,” she said. “Then, going back, by chance or circumstance, the expressions of the early dolls are more upbeat, reflecting the hope for a new future with Emancipation and Reconstruction.”
Admission is free, donation suggested. The Harvard Historical Society is at 215 Still River Road. For information, www.blackclothdolls.com or 978-456-8285.