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Study of a Parian Peddler and Her Wares

by Debra Gulea

For those of you who know me well, you know that I am notorious for not maintaining a private collection. It seems that every old doll I meet is transient: even those I intend on keeping end up boarding with me for a short time, before packing their bags and happily moving on. For example: a lovely fashion recently left me for another woman on Saturday. I thought that she was quite happy with our arrangement, but as soon as she met one of my dear friends (a doll enthusiast who was touring my home), she left me in the dust. When I have the opportunity to sell, I sell. When a doll wants to move on, I let it go. So it might come as somewhat of a surprise when I clearly state right from the start that this doll, which we will be examining today, is from my (gasp!) personal collection; and sorry dear reader, she will not be for sale.

The object of my affection is this regal parian peddler (alternatively called a pedlar, stall-holder and vendor in some sources). Her pale blond molded hair is swept up, exposing her delicate ears, and then falls in thick sausage curls to her shoulders. She has a petite gold luster comb (or small crown) perched on the top of her head. Typically, parians are quite matte in finish, but my fair lady has what I have heard termed as "soapy finish": that radiant, dewy glow promised to those who use Dove soap on a regular basis. Her hair style is consistent with the mid 1870's, and though I am unsure of her maker (as it seems many German companies produced heads somewhat similar to hers), I feel confident about the date. Poor gal, she has been sitting at her table of wares for 130 odd years, her table is still fully stocked, and judging by her stern expression, she hasn't had a single sale.

Parians have always had a soft spot in my heart; I tend to be partial to molded hair dolls of all mediums. Often the same hairstyles were produced by German doll factories both in un-tinted and unglazed bisque (called 'parian' by today's collectors) and in china (which has a glazed, high gloss finish). I have often thought that it would be fun to assemble a collection of parians & chinas featuring the same hairdo, posed side by side in the cabinet; but alas, I always seem to sell off one before I find the other that goes with it.

Peddlers are always a source of amusement for me. I have always loved miniatures, and would never be able to fit a large, fully-stocked, dollhouse in my home. Peddler dolls are a way to enjoy dollhouse miniatures and miniature dolls in a small setting. As peddler dolls always come with a table or tray of wares, there is usually much to be admired. My own gal's table is crowded with glass grapes, candle sticks, drinking glasses, sea shells, pin cushions and sewing implements, a clock, many knit and lace items, purses, and of course many miniature dolls of her own, including 8 Frozen Charlottes, which we will get to later. I never tire of looking at her assortment.

It is usually impossible to determine what miniature items are original to the peddler and which ones have been added. It seems that peddlers suffer two fates equally: having their treasures raided, to be sold separately for a higher price, or having their tables embellished over the years by enthusiastic collectors who love to see the tables jam-packed with stuff. It is possible that the same peddler doll has had her table raided & re-stocked more than once.

It used to be thought that these whimsical dolls were all handmade, lovingly assembled during idle evening hours by crafty Victorian homemakers. It has since been learned that many of the peddlers on the market were actually factory made during the Victorian era, particularly those standing & affixed to wooden bases and carrying little woven baskets of goodies. Indeed, these are often stamped with the company name on the base, which attests to their commercial heritage. Perhaps it's just my own romantic notions, but I like to believe that my own parian peddler lady was one of the homemade ones; many of her wares look decidedly "homespun", and her table isn't very sophisticated in its design (being just stiff paper affixed with lace). She is also more regal than the commercially made peddlers one usually sees: the commercial ones usually have a red flannel cape over a patterned skirt, whereas my lady wears the finest deep blue velvet walking suit.

Not to brag, but I'm also enchanted by the unusual natural beauty of my peddler. Most peddlers look like hags: their heads are made from wax, kid leather, dried apples, or wood; and they have a shriveled, wicked expression like those witches from the Brothers Grimm, or women living in Florida who shied away from sunscreen. Indeed, real XVIII and XIX Century peddlers were usually suspicious vagabonds (or gypsies), who made their living traveling from village to village, selling their wares. They were stigmatized (as gypsies still are today in many parts of the world), and often viewed as cons and thieves. When they would arrive in a new village, they were met with an equal amount of excitement (over the exotic wares they brought with them from the bigger cities) and fear. I am quite confident that my parian peddler was never a traveling sales woman; rather, she looks like a doll dealer having a bad show, and thus lies her appeal for me.

Frozen Charlottes are another one of my favorites, and my dear lady has no less than 8 offered on her table, including two black ones, a clownish gentleman with a funny hat and mustache, two blondes, and three very tiny ones adored with jewelry and homemade lace clothes. These stiff, immobile dolls were produced in Germany between 1850 and 1930, and probably found their way to my lady's table of wares fairly early in their lives. Though hard to believe, Frozen Charlottes were truly play dolls- they have the amusing ability to float in the tub. (Anyone who has a child knows how popular bathing dolls and toys remain with today's toddler class). Indeed, they were originally called (most properly) "Bathing Dolls", until somehow during this century they became associated with a whimsical little morality poem about "Young Charlotte", a vain socialite who froze to death on the way to a winter ball because she refused to cover her fine clothes in a heavy woolen blanket. (As an interesting aside, Young Charlotte is said to have "laughed like a gypsy queen" at the suggestion of bundling up in the cold; this really should tell you something about how gypsies and peddlers were viewed during this time period).

Whereas Frozen Charlottes were clearly "dolls", what about peddlers- were they dolls too? Well, most people define a doll as a "child's plaything in human form, either jointed or un-jointed" (at least, this is the definition that I go by on my web site). Frozen Charlottes fit that criteria, as they were played with in the bath by children- but what about peddlers? There is little evidence to suggest that "peddlers" were ever played with. If you look at them, firmly attached to their tables or baskets, their wares sewn on glued in place, there is little opportunity for "play"- you really can't do a thing with them. Yet, the parian at the heart of the scene was indeed made by a doll factory, and she was made to be a child's plaything. However, this "former doll" was forced to take her seat at the table of wares, and in doing so, ceases to be a doll. (I threw in this interesting psychological question about the nature of doll-hood so that you can see how seriously I study doll-ology). At any rate, in her present form, I would call my beloved parian peddler more of a "Victorian novelty", a curiosity that perhaps graced some upper class woman's parlor or mantle, a conversation piece for friends who came calling during leisurely afternoons. So it's ironic that I, a doll dealer who does not usually collect dolls, am absolutely enthralled with this doll who is also a doll dealer, but ironically, not technically a doll at all!

Why did I decide to keep her? Why could I never let her go? Is it because of her beautiful parian head? Because of the many Frozen Charlottes she displays, which I have always admired? Is it because she's unusual for her type- the sole parian peddler in a sea of wax-over and wooden head ones? No, dear reader, it's far more simple than that. I think that I keep her because she reminds me of me. I know what it's like to sit at a doll show, peddling my wares. I know what it's like to have a good show, where you sell everything and wish you brought even more, and what it's like to have a bad show, when it seems like no one is interested in what you brought (fortunately, I haven't had one of those in a long time, knock on wood, but one never forgets the dreadful feeling). I keep her because she's not a doll, but because she's a doll dealer, like me. Now if only I could look so well-coiffed and well-attired at my next NADDA event!

Author Debra Gulea is the owner of Debra's Dolls of Mullica Hill, NJ.