What are Composition Dolls?

Katharine Swan

Composition dolls began to replace porcelain and bisque dolls in the American market during the early part of the 20th century. This transition took place because of two different factors. First, because of World War I, Americans stopped buying imported German dolls, which enabled dolls from other places to make their entrance. Second, this type of doll became preferable because they were much less expensive and much less likely to break than bisque dolls.

Mohair, produced from the hair of angora goats, was used to make glued-on wigs on composition dolls.
Mohair, produced from the hair of angora goats, was used to make glued-on wigs on composition dolls.

Due to these factors, composition dolls became very popular in America starting in the 1920s. In the late 1940s, the development of hard plastic as a doll manufacturing material began to phase out the material. Hard plastic eventually pushed composition out of the market in the 1950s, simply because hard plastic was even more durable.

Composition dolls were made of a mixture of wood pulp and glue, which was formed using molds and allowed to harden. The dolls were then painted with a thick layer of flesh-colored paint. On top of the flesh paint were painted features, such as the eyebrows, eyelashes, and lips, and blush on the cheeks, the backs of the hands, elbows, and knees. A layer of sealant or varnish was painted over this to protect the features and seal the composition.

Much more durable than their predecessors, composition dolls could withstand much more playwear. They sometimes had molded hair, which meant that the head mold was simply shaped and painted to resemble hair; others had glued-on wigs made of mohair. The dolls were dressed in stylish outfits that often showed an impressive degree of detail. Most were created in the image of babies or small children. Certain storybook characters, such as Scarlett O'Hara and the characters of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, were also sold, and Shirley Temple dolls were particularly popular.

Although composition dolls are not as fragile as bisque dolls, they still show age and wear. They tend to crack or break with excessive use. Also, over time and under changing conditions, such as humidity and temperature, the outer layer of paint can develop fine surface cracks, called crazing. Crazing can occur only in certain areas, or it can spread to every part of the doll's body. In extreme cases, the paint can flake off, baring the composition underneath.

Because of the vulnerability of the materials, composition dolls require special care in order to preserve their beauty. These dolls should never be stored in a place that suffers extreme temperatures or carries a danger of flooding. Care should also be taken to pack them with tissue paper. They should never be encased in plastic, since the inability of plastic to breathe will result in retained moisture and possibly mold damage or rot.

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Discussion Comments


What or how would one categorize a doll made of our modern day liguied slips that the manufacturers are calling composition? Are these "modern" composition?

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