Victorian Era Shell Dolls

The other day I was browsing the Strong National Museum of Play’s website while I was bored at work (yeah,yeah I know…I should have been working). I started to look through their collection of dolls from the 19th century. I saw the typical ones I have always seen and loved; wooden grodnertals, china heads and parians and French fashion dolls. One doll caught my eye, it was a shell doll. Occasionally, one or two would pop up but I never really considered them. A quick search on The Strong’s online collections yielded pages of results!
Before I show you the beautiful examples of shell dolls I found, I want to give you a brief history of shell crafting. Shell handicrafts date back to the 18th century. They were originally called “sailors valentines” and were most often made or brought back by sailors to loved ones. Sometimes these were sold for pocket money while a sailor was in port. These intricate works of art show attention to detail and creative use of different colored and shaped sea shells.

During the mid-19th century, seaside travel became fashionable. There were pages of fashion magazines dedicated to what to wear to these resorts and other advice on the subject. It’s no surprise that souvenirs were popular with tourists. Shell dolls became one of the many types of souvenirs available to travelers. Though these resorts were all over the world; the “base” dolls (the dolls that the shells were attached to) mostly came from one country. Germany produced most of the worlds dolls at the time, so it’s no wonder that the “base” dolls came from there as well! The “base” dolls were commonly paper mache or wood.  The examples I could study were made using cheaper quality dolls of the period. The one example of a doll that was made completely in France is made from shells alone, no “base” doll was used.
Lady’s magazines of the time such as Godeys and Petersons offered instructions on how to do shell handicrafts including dolls, picture frames, decorative boxes, mirrors, dresser sets, dollhouse furniture and shadow box scenes. Some copied the souvenirs you could buy at seaside resorts and some used their imagination to create these wonderful, kitschy works of art. This trend continued through the 1870’s and was included in books on how to do “fancy work”. Companies sold the supplies to do these in the comfort of your own home and for those not fortunate enough to travel to the seashore.  The Sears and Roebuck catalog sold shells to customers during the second half of the 19th century making this craft more available to the masses than before.

The first example of a shell doll here is from Brittany,France. This is the only example I have found from France so far. There may be other examples out there but I haven’t found them yet.

french shell doll

The next two examples are from Germany:

Z0072767german shell doll

My favorite doll out of the ones I examined is the one from Brittany. She is so very modern yet timeless. I have seen similar versions in modern seashore gift shops. This just shows what goes around comes a round.


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