More Than Just Toys

EGYPTIANS made them out of flat pieces of wood, Japanese from folded paper, Germans with porcelain, and Eskimos from sealskin. Adults collect them. Children cherish them. What are they? Dolls.

The World Book Encyclopedia states: “Most doll-like figures from earlier periods were magical or religious objects, not toys.” Ancient Egyptians painted patterned clothing onto small pieces of paddle-shaped wood and adorned them with strings of clay beads representing hair. They placed these “paddle dolls” in the tombs of their dead in the belief that the dolls would act as servants in the afterlife. Vengeful people in the West Indies stuck pins into voodoo dolls in the hope of causing harm to their enemies.

In many cultures, dolls were associated with fertility rites. For instance, in ancient Greece, shortly before girls were married, they left their dolls on an altar to Artemis, the goddess of fertility. Today women from the Ashanti tribe in Ghana, Africa, carry a doll in their waistbands in the hope that it will help them bear beautiful children. Some girls in Syria hang dolls in their windows to advertise that they are of marriageable age.

On March 3 each year, dolls feature in a celebration held in Japan called Hina Matsuri, or the Doll Festival. This is also known as the festival for girls, which “derives from several different customs,” says Japan​—An Illustrated Encyclopedia. “One is a Chinese purificatory rite that was held along a river early in the third lunar month. During the Heian period (794-1185) courtiers called in diviners on the third day of the third month to exorcise their impurities, transferring them to paper images . . . , which were thrown into the river or ocean.”

 Dolls as Toys

During the Edo period in Japan (1603-1867), dolls made specially for children were modeled after real people and came with different costumes. Other types of dolls were made to move by the use of cables, springs, pulleys, and wooden gears. One model could even carry a cup of tea to a guest and return with the empty cup!

In Western lands prior to the 1700’s, “childhood as we know it did not really exist,” says one encyclopedia. “Youngsters were regarded as little adults and were expected to act like them.” Dolls were made for adults as much as for children. During the 1800’s, though, the importance of playtime in a child’s development gained recognition. As a result, the dollmaking industry prospered in Europe.

As early as 1824, German dollmakers invented a device that allowed their dolls to say “mama” and “papa.” Later during that century, they produced walking dolls. The American inventor Thomas Edison even manufactured a miniaturized record player that made some dolls appear to talk. Meanwhile, the French made a doll called Bébé Gourmand, which could eat food. The French were also noted for their fashionable dolls, which were sold dressed in elaborate costumes. For these dolls the owner could buy such accessories as combs, furs, fans, and furniture.

The 20th century witnessed an unprecedented boom in doll manufacturing. In the 1940’s, the use of plastic allowed dollmakers to produce cheap yet intricately crafted dolls. The plastic Barbie doll has dominated the doll industry since its release in 1959. Over one billion of them have been sold, and in the year 1997 alone, they earned their maker $1.8 billion (U.S.).

Dolls as Teachers

To teach their children about their tribal gods, the Pueblo Indians of the southwestern United States used kachina dolls, carved from cactus roots or pine. During a special ceremony, a member of the tribe dressed and acted like one of the gods. Afterward, parents gave a doll fashioned like that god to their children so that as they played with it, they became familiar with the god.

Dolls “provide an outlet for a child’s hurt feelings, anger, and other emotions,” says The World Book Encyclopedia. “Playing with dolls enables children to rehearse the roles they hope to perform after they grow up.” One doll displayed during the Children’s Day Festival held in Japan each May shows a young man dressed in the full armor of a traditional warrior. The doll is used as a role model to encourage young boys to grow up to be​—according to local culture—​strong, respectable members of society.

Because of the emotional bond formed between children and their dolls, wise parents will take seriously the influence dolls may have on their child’s development. For example, some charge that the physical appearance and the endless wardrobe of certain dolls might have a harmful effect on girls.  One critic claims that such dolls can corrupt “young girls with shallow messages that promote style over substance.”

What is obvious to anyone who has ever seen children play with a doll is that whether it is made of cloth, paper, wood, plastic, or some other material, it is more than just a toy. It is a friend, a playmate, and even a confidant with whom they share their childhood.

[Box on page 27]

Renewed Interest in Old Dolls

Doll collecting has become a very popular hobby. In the 1970’s, it gained impetus, spawning an international market. Collectors seek cheap plastic dolls worth as little as a few dollars or rare dolls such as the Kämmer and Reinhardt dolls. Made in Germany in the early 1900’s, one of these dolls was sold at auction for $277,500! One of the largest collections​—held at the Strong National Museum of Play in the city of Rochester, New York, U.S.A.​—contains about 12,000 dolls.

[Box/​Picture on page 28]

Dolls​—Basis for Parental Concern

How can parents protect their children from the potentially harmful influence of some dolls? The Washington Post lamented: “Like the tobacco industry of old, the entertainment and toy industries generally deny any responsibility and are unlikely to make changes on their own.” Clearly, parents need to assume responsibility.

The Bible commands parents to provide children with wholesome daily instruction. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9; Proverbs 22:6) How might that be given in a way that addresses the potential harmful influence of some dolls? One mother says that she read to her daughter about modest dress, as described at 1 Timothy 2:9, and reasoned with her on the matter. Their conversations went something like this:

Mother: Whom do these dolls look like, a child or a woman?

Daughter: A woman.

Mother: Why do you say that?

Daughter: Because they have bodies like women, and their clothes and shoes are those of women.

Mother: That’s right. And after reading what we did in the Bible, do you think the clothing these dolls are wearing is the kind Christians should wear?

Daughter: No.

Mother: Why not?

Daughter: Because the skirts are very short, . . . the blouses are low-cut, . . . and the material sticks to their bodies.

Admittedly, teaching your children godly principles so that they reach such conclusions takes effort. But it is worth it! Many parents have benefited from the help provided by the book Learn From the Great Teacher, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses to help parents inculcate godly principles in their children.

You are invited to obtain a copy of this 256-page illustrated book by writing to Jehovah’s Witnesses, 25 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, NY 11201-2483. Indicate that you would like to receive a copy of Learn From the Great Teacher.

[Picture on page 26]

Japanese tea-serving doll

[Picture on page 26]

French Bru doll

[Picture Credit Lines on page 26]

Top: © SHOBEI Tamaya IX; middle: Courtesy, Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, New York; bottom: © Christie’s Images Ltd