Paper dolls and the magic of simple toys



Paper dolls are quiet, unobtrusive toys.  They don’t flash, buzz, or play music, and they take up hardly any space.  Perhaps that’s why my own childhood collection remained lost for years, tucked far out of sight in a closet in my parents’ house.

A few years ago, though, my mother handed me a bulging drawstring bag.  “I thought you might want to see these again,” she said.   She was right;   I practically grabbed the bag out of her hands.

When  I sat down at the dining room table and opened the bag, I was instantly pulled back into my childhood.  I found the Ginghams, that charming quartet of girls in turn-of-the-century costumes.    There were two separate bridal parties, the men with hideous ruffled tuxedos (I was a child of the eighties, after all).  Tucked inside a manila envelope were Susan and Terri, the teenage ballerinas, with their colorful tutus, leotards and – eighties again! – fuzzy legwarmers.

Paper dolls were a staple of my childhood. They were wonderfully cheap, which meant that my sister Amy, our paper-doll loving friend Becky, and I could easily add new ones to our collections.  Unlike the video games that were just coming on the scene, you didn’t have to “learn” what to do with paper dolls; they were simple and straightforward.   It did take work to punch out the clothes, but it was fun work, colored by anticipation.  Every now and then, we’d buy dolls that were not perforated, and though we grumbled about it, there was a heroic sense of accomplishment that came from using the scissors, snipping away carefully as we liberated the dolls from their pages.

Once they were free, our dolls led busy lives.  Amy, Becky and I would commandeer the living room, each taking a section, and we’d use boxes and folders to construct huge circular houses for our flat friends.  We’d sit in the middle of our houses, pivoting as we dressed the dolls for their various dramas.  Our paper people attended dance recitals, went on dates, prepared for the first day of school – any activity that required a change of wardrobe.  Whole hours passed by as we sat in the living room, spinning stories and clothing the dolls accordingly.  Our saintly mothers would let us leave the houses there for days at a time.

Life wasn’t always perfect in Paper Doll Land.  One morning we entered Becky’s house to find a swath of destruction caused by Mae-Mae, her Siamese cat, who had streaked through the living room, demolishing our flimsy paper walls like a feline Godzilla.  The dolls were fragile, too. Looking through them again, I find that several are reinforced with tape at the neck, always the most vulnerable spot.  When any doll threatened to lose her head, we tended to her carefully, intently, with the precision of a surgeon.  We rarely lost a patient.

In fact, I’m convinced that the modest nature of paper dolls is an essential part of their charm.  I couldn’t have said so at the time, but there was something satisfying in being able to spin complex dramas out of such simple materials.  Now that I’m a mom, I see a reflection of this in my boys when they play with blocks or paper airplanes.  Watching them, I observe the same absorption that my friends and I used to feel with our paper communities.   It’s that sense of limitless possibility, that exciting knowledge that you can create your very own world.  A toy that seems like it can do so much less than its flashier electronic counterparts can, in reality, do so much more.

And, truth be told, these paper dolls are still a part of my life.  Every now and then, when I’m feeling in need of a nostalgia trip, I take out the dolls and their clothes, those bright bits of my past that were not lost after all.  They take me back to a blissful time when a weekend stretched on forever, when a world could be built with nothing more than paper and imagination.

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