Think you're brave? We dare you to look at these creepy Vermont dolls
Think about your favorite doll or action figure for a moment. Did it have a happy smile? Hair you could style? A fun outfit to put on, or accessory to play with?
The dolls in this story are not those dolls.
These dolls have decomposing clothes, peeling paint, missing limbs and brittle hair. They’re from the Vermont Historical Society’s collections in Barre, and their dead eyes can see into your soul.
Over the course of one very spooky week this October, the Historical Society’s staff tweeted out pictures of their favorite dolls, two at a time, and asked for votes on which one was the creepiest. The curators called the contest, fittingly, Creepy Doll Week (read on to find out the winner).
Collections manager Teresa Greene (our Vermont Edition guest this hour) was one of the bracket’s masterminds. She started posting pictures of some of the dolls on her personal Instagram while she was inventorying the collection.
“I just could not stop talking about them,” she said. “If I can get that excited about something, somebody else has got to be excited about it, too.”
The response to the bracket has been overwhelmingly positive, Greene said. “A lot of people think that museums and history are very serious and high-minded,” she said. “So it can be refreshing to, at least once in a while, realize that history was just weird, just like today.”
Take Frozen Charlotte, a doll with blond hair and a pretty dress. She could be mistaken for a 19th century Elsa, but she’s actually based on a once-popular folk story about a young woman who drowned in an icy lake on the way to a party. Her porcelain skin is so pale because – get this, kids! – she’s dead.
All 176 dolls in the collection were either made in Vermont or owned by Vermonters. Many came from families who’d held onto a doll for generations. Others were donated to the state of Vermont by France after World War II (France shipped a train car full of dolls, clothes and other gifts to every state as a gesture of friendship).
This doll — the oldest in the collection — dates back to the late 18th or early 19th century.
Its arms are made of rolled up pieces of linen, and its head is made of wood. Both its legs are missing, as is its face. Its plaster visage now sits next to its body in a drawer in the Historical Society’s storage facility, which Greene lovingly calls “the crypt.”
The doll lost said face and limbs in the Great Vermont Flood of 1927. The family donated the faceless doll in the early 1930s.
The social media bracket has proven to be an immensely effective way to garner the public’s interest in the dolls, Greene said. But she wished she had more room to share more of their individual stories outside of Twitter’s character limit.
By way of example, Greene held up a relatively nice-looking doll with a big smile. “If you look closely, you can see she has tiny little baby teeth. And her leg skin is coming off,” Greene pointed out. “She was owned and cherished for a long time by a girl named Sarah Lawrence in Montpelier. And when Sarah was a child, she pulled out the doll’s hair and replaced it with her own hair.”
Many of the dolls in the collection reflect their era’s ideas of feminine beauty – pale skin, blond hair, long dresses. Those stereotypes have lasted well into the modern era, as anyone who ever played with a Barbie knows. But in recent years, toy manufacturers have begun to respond to consumer demands for more diversity, creating dolls that more accurately reflect what real people look like.
The Historical Society’s collection does include some non-white dolls from the 19th and 20th centuries, but the curators decided not to include them in the bracket. Many of the Black dolls in the collection have exaggerated features or racist names, reflecting the bigoted beliefs of the people who made or donated them.
Tweeting out photos of these dolls in a lighthearted manner or without proper context would have been deeply problematic, Greene said.
Dolls often represent an unachievable ideal, said Beth Robinson, the artist behind Strange Dolls (click if you dare). Robinson was based in Vermont for more than two decades before recently relocating to St. Louis.
“There’s something about them that’s very sentimental and kind of a placeholder for memories and a connection to a person or a time in their life,” Robinson said. “I like to take that idealized version of things and exploit it.” She said she gets inspiration for her creations from various collections of old dolls, such as the ones at the Historical Society and Shelburne Museum.
Now, what about the winner of the creepy doll bracket?
Greene held up a doll with a bag over its head. “This is Farmer Applehead,” she explained, along with his wife Mrs. Applehead. "Their faces are made of apples, so they attract pests,” she warned me before taking off the bag.
Farmer Applehead’s face was shrunken and shriveled. It wasn’t moldy, technically, thanks to the way the apple was dried after being carved into a face. Still, it was about as creepy as a doll could possibly look.
“We’re having fun with our job,” she said. “You’re allowed to have fun with history.”
To learn more about historical dolls, or to get your pants scared off by hundred-year-old toys, you can peruse the Historical Society’s online collections or set up an in-person research appointment.
Broadcast live at noon on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.
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