China dolls are often too beautiful to be considered a toy. Their history dates to the Chinese T'ang Dynasty (618-907) . Porcelain (later called china) was a closely guarded secret for centuries. To divulge the process was punishable by death. Marco Polo is believed to to have brought fine porcelain objects back to Europe after his visits to China in the 14th century. Because these objects were so rare and valuable, they were owned by royalty.
The process to make porcelain was not perfected by the Chinese until the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). This coincides with Marco Polo's visits. By this time the porcelain was a fine delicate white. To make porcelain, a combination of kaolin, pegmatite(course granite) and silica or feldspar is necessary. Europeans knew this but could not duplicate the recipe the Chinese used. In 1707 two Germans named Ehrenfried Walter von Tschimhaus perfected the process by adding feldspar instead of ground glass (what had been used) to the mix.
Later in the eighteenth century the English further improved upon the recipe for porcelain when they invented bone china by adding ash from cattle bones to clay, feldspar, and quartz. Although bone china is fired at lower temperatures than true porcelain, the bone ash enables it to become translucent nonetheless. Because it is also easier to make, harder to chip, and stronger than hard porcelain, bone china has become the most popular type of porcelain in the United States and Britain. The first mass manufacturer of porcelain was Konigliche Porzellanmanufaktur (KPM) in Meissen, Saxony. Within 40 years their were about 14 manufacturers of porcelain in Europe.
Still considered a luxury good, it was primarily only produced for the wealthy and consisted of dishes and ornamental objects. Bone china was more affordable for the masses. In the early 19th century (1825) the mass production of porcelain or "China" had lowered the cost somewhat. KPM began to manufacture a glazed pink porcelain into china doll heads. These were not toys but objects of art for the wealthy. Finely molded into ladies with flowers and ribbons decorating their hair. These heads were mounted onto cloth or kid leather bodies. These beauties were almost exclusively manufactured in Saxony (Germany).
By the 1840's these dolls had a shoulder plate which allowed them to be sewn onto a cloth body and they now had porcelain arms and legs. 1850 saw the advent of mass production of china dolls as toys. Frozen Charlotte's were an example of an all porcelain doll. Dolls were affordable to most and manufacturers tapped into a new market, dolls as toys. In 1860 these dolls were owned by almost all segments of society. As with any toy, the dolls were produced in varying states and could be as simple as a head and shoulder plate with all cloth body and no clothing, to intricately molded and decorated dolls with expensive high fashion wardrobes.
By the turn of the 20th century china dolls were still being produced but demand began to go down as other materials became available for manufacture. Germany was still producing most of the dolls and these are the ones that are sought after by collectors. At the height of production in the 1890's, dolls could be purchased in kits, parts and with or without clothing. By the late 1920's composition dolls began to overtake the market. After WWII, hard plastic was the preferred material for dolls. China dolls once again became a novelty. In the 1970's a resurgence of interest in china and porcelain dolls brought them back on the mass market as objects of art or for modern doll collectors. Not since the mid to late 19th century has the demand been as high as it was then. Serious collectors now troll antique shops, online auctions, and other resting places of once loved and adored dolls so they can own these beautiful toys from the past.
Next week we will discuss how to identify and date antique china dolls and how to spot a reproduction. See you then!