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How Porcelain Dolls Became the Ultimate Victorian Status Symbol

Class-obsessed consumers found the cold, hard and highly breakable figurines irresistible

These dolls had a fashionista forerunner: mini mannequins. The French royal court would ship these figurines fully decked out in the latest styles so aristocracy in other countries could copy them for their closets. Essentially, they were the 1700s version of flipping through Vogue.

In that respect, porcelain dolls were nothing new. The toy-as-status-symbol connection has long been established. In the Middle Ages, clay toys were playthings of the people—easily made and widely available—whereas ornate knight dolls with jousting accessories were rare, exquisite items reserved for the children of royalty. This division goes all the way back to antiquity. Consider Crepereia Tryphaena, a Roman woman whose sarcophagus was found to contain a beautifully crafted jointed doll. Death is the great equalizer: All skeletons look the same. But this doll acted as a stand-in for her owner’s body. When Tryphaena’s physical presence could no longer communicate her status, her doll’s sculpted face, molded hair and fine details were able to deliver the message.

The boom in doll production, meanwhile, was new—the product of a number of societal factors glomming together in the 1800s. The first was a boost in personal income for the middle class in America, which drove a spending spree on European goods. The aim of acquiring these items was to emulate the upper class, which was, in turn, emulating European elites. Real estate for nursery space also expanded for middle-class families, creating more room for dolls and a designated place for playtime.

An explosion of shopping venues followed these developments, from ritzy department stores to the encyclopedic mail-order catalogs to mushrooming chain stores. Ample toy-buying went into overdrive on Christmas, which solidified into a national American holiday and a Santa-themed, gift-giving bonanza in the 1870s. Finally, busy parents with fewer children came to see dolls as a good surrogate for companionship. All this was coupled with innovations in mass production and the dawn of the factory. The result: Porcelain dolls were poised for a takeover.

In the New Yorker in 2015, writer Thessaly La Force recounted Europe’s feverish obsession with porcelain. It arrived from China in the 14th century, and from the beginning, it was considered “white gold.” “Porcelain is for the refined, for the ruling class, with all of its power and privilege,” La Force explains. “This level of materialism, after all, is never about necessity.”