In her mid-19th-century children’s book, Memoirs of a Doll, Julie Gouraud warns her readers not to unstitch their dolls looking for origins and inner workings. Trying to discover what is inside a doll leads to nothing more, she claims, than disillusionment and an “empty doll-case.”
And yet, this desire to know what resides inside these inanimate companions—as well as where they come from—plagued Victorians, who visited manufacturing towns and read production histories about their toys. Today, doll-lovers still travel all over the world to uncover the origins of the doll-making industry.
Nowhere in Europe were more dolls born in the 19th and 20th centuries than in Sonneberg, Germany, the former center of Europe’s toy-making industry. Sonneberg, like a child lost without breadcrumbs to follow, lies hidden in the heart of the Thuringian forest. The surrounding forest initially supported a successful wood-carving toy trade. But it was the introduction of papier-mâché in the early 19th century—a technique that uses molds rather than individual wood carvings—that spurred mass production.
By the end of the 19th century, Sonneberg was well known for crafting and distributing toys of all kinds, but it was particularly famed for its doll-making industry. This booming production drew vendors and tourists from near and far, who came to witness the origins of children’s playthings.
At the turn of the 20th century, Martin Hardie—a recognized authority on English prints and engravings—describes wandering the streets of Sonneberg, or, as he calls it, the “kingdom of dolls.” Here, he saw a “constant procession” of carts filled with limbs, clothing, and “headless bodies.”
What struck Hardie as a “grim and ghastly funeral cortège” would later come to life. Once the subjects were given porcelain heads, glass eyes, and (in some cases) wigs made of human hair, they would be sent across the continent and into the homes (and imaginations) of children. Until then, workers stuffed legs, cut dresses, glued heads, cut and inserted eyes, and painted faces onto the lifeless forms.
There are no such sights in Sonneberg now. As a PhD candidate who is completing a dissertation on 19th-century dolls, I wanted to see this former capital of toy and doll production. While it is difficult to imagine the bustling streets and pervasive smell of glue that Hardie describes, there are still traces of this long-distant production in the red-roofed town of Sonneberg: severed doll limbs lie in windowsills, curling black-and-white photographs of women bent over infant-sized hands and faces molder in forgotten corners of crowded shelves, and professed “doll doctors,” who tend to “sick” and broken toys, hang signs outside their shop doors.
In a small toy store off of Sonneberg’s main street, a grainy black-and-white photograph sits on a backroom shelf. In the center of the photograph, a man leans over a woman, looking down at his hands. What he holds is hidden behind the woman’s head, while her hands are cut off by the edge of the frame. Both, however, are intent on something in front of them.
What can be made out in this photograph are stacks of doll faces and torsos that surround the couple. Dolls, which—I suppose—the couple is hard at work putting together. Two dolls, already almost finished, lean semi-upright in the corner, discarded newspaper covering their faces. Peering down at the tilted figures, I wonder whether, beneath the paper, the dolls have eyes or not. Once it has the ability to look back, a doll—it seems to me—is “born.”
I am not alone in my curiosity about this place, as relatively quiet as it now seems. Vans filled with collectors who stayed at the toy-themed hotel by the Sonneberg train station make their way up German Toy Road. This thematic “road” connects the major contemporary and historical toy production and manufacturing towns and cities from Nuremberg to Erfurt.
It’s a strange mix at the breakfast buffet: men in suits on business calls, small children who dart between tables, older couples who help themselves to cheese and rolls, and me. But we are all drawn together by a shared fascination with where and how dolls are made.
Many of the hotel’s guests spend a day at the Deutsches Spielzeugmuseum, the oldest toy museum in Germany. Otherwise, they seek out collector’s items at toy shops, or travel to neighboring towns and villages to find more information on the history of the toy industry and its particular companies.
The persistent interest in the ways in which dolls are made—as well as in the place where they are “born”—is as intriguing as the place itself. For those who continue to visit, Sonneberg attempts to keep its past alive, to animate it in the same way that children have brought their dolls to life throughout so many years. The museums, shops, and carefully preserved buildings and red rooftops that evoke accounts from visitors over a hundred years ago are all reminders of what once was.
Back at the toy hotel, guests reconvene and head to their rooms to dream of childhood and other things long gone. When staying in one of the doll rooms—as I did—on the third floor, dolls in glass boxes stare at you from their places along the walls. It’s unnerving to be watched, even—or perhaps especially—by a doll. This may partly be why dolls were later made to “sleep,” with eyes that close when put to bed. We sleep better knowing that our dolls do, too.
I didn’t sleep well my last night at the toy hotel, but not because of the dolls: a wild thunderstorm raged all night. Listening to the rain whip the glass, I thought of how—before the toy industry fully took off—Mary Shelley wrote of Frankenstein’s creature being brought to life not far from here, in Ingolstadt, a city to the south. Shelley never explicitly mentioned that Frankenstein—the young scientist who was supposedly a student—used electricity to bring his creature to life, but this has been so long assumed that it’s hard not to link them together.
As streaks of light reached through the clouds, it felt like Sonneberg was once again the center of animation that it used to be, as if each flash down into the dollhouse town was a spark that could bring an object to life.
Featured image: At the Martin Bären toy shop, children can stuff their own teddy bears, which then come with a birth certificate. Courtesy of the Deutsche Teddybären Museum