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An Original American Doll

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One of the most popular sites at any museum is the gift shop. This is the place where someone can find their own piece of the museum to take home. The museum store here at Dallas Heritage Village has gone through multiple location changes (it was even once located in the back of the Train Depot) and name changes (our mailing labels still say Mc Calls Store). One thing over the years has not changed however, and that is the selling of Clothespin Dolls handmade by our own Barbara Brockett.

Barbara grew up at a time when clothespins were used to hang the wash outside to dry. Being from a family of women who were talented in sewing and refashioning clothes, Barbara developed a talent for sewing early on. She explains that clothespins were truly an American invention and were widely available from about the 1840s until the 1950s when dryers become popular. Clothespins came in all shapes and sizes and this lead for great experimentation and imagination as little girls would create dolls from them.

However, it was not until 1976 that Barbara’s clothespin dolls became a mini commercial industry of their own. Barbara made her first set of dolls as gifts for her daughter’s Camp Fire club, they were in calico dresses and sunbonnets. One of the mothers knew that this doll would have a great place at the museum where she volunteered. Thus McCall’s gave Barbara a call to see if they could acquire six dolls to sell in their gift shop. After being displayed only a short time, one visitor bought all six of the dolls at once and from then on the store began stocking Barbara’s clothespin dolls.

These clothespin dolls have been a part of the museum since 1976 and have been sold in up to 30 different museums that request to buy these dolls from us. Each doll is unique and has her own personality. Barbara has made a large variety of dolls throughout the years (including a request for Native American dolls this year) but her standards include pioneer, “turn of the Century” Victorian, Early American featuring different occupations such as teachers and gardeners, as well as brides in the summer. She has even taken special requests including creating whaling ship captain’s wives for a special fundraiser at another museum.

As far as production is concerned here at the Village we know that Barbara has the art of making these dolls down to a science. She never sits down to make just a single doll, and there is an assembly line like process. She starts by painting the tops of about 200 clothespins, then signs them (that’s right every single doll has her signature!) and then adds two eyes and a smile. The next day she makes the clothing such as dresses or petticoats. She finds her patterns through simple trial and error and paper dolls from the era give ample inspiration for costumes. All of the clothes are sewn by sewing machine and she even crochets the mini bonnets and hats herself. She estimates that the whole process boils down to making about 3 dolls per hour.

Barbara doesn’t really have a favorite type of doll to make but she admits that if she has a large order to fill, the pioneer dolls go faster and are easier. One of the fun challenges to making these dolls is finding miniature items for the dolls to hold, such as little baskets and she is always on the lookout for more miniature items. She has even fashioned some of her dolls to mimic the appearance of our history educators. Plus all of us in the offices have at least one doll (one of mine is pictured on this post!) and we have a hard time not buying a new one whenever a new collection comes in, the patriotic dolls for the Fourth of July were hard to resist (I bought one that is sewing an American flag!).

As of 2013 Barbara’s records show that she has made 73,015 dolls and about 99% of the have been sold to benefit Dallas Heritage Village. The dolls are part of the unique charm of the Village and we are incredibly lucky to have Barbara’s talents at our disposal. Do you have a clothespin doll from the Village? Share a picture with us either in the comments or any of our social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram)! We’d love to see how many dolls are out there being loved by past visitors.

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