What is a Porcelain Doll?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A porcelain doll is a doll with a head and extremities made from porcelain, a special type of clay which is famous for being very workable, strong, and beautiful. Porcelain dolls may also be referred to as china dolls, referencing an alternative name for porcelain. This style of doll was made popular in Europe in the 19th century, and a handful of dollmakers continue to produce traditional porcelain dolls. Some very fine examples of antique dolls can be seen on display in museums and at doll trade shows.

Porcelain originated in China.
Porcelain originated in China.

Porcelain is a material which originated in China. The Chinese managed to keep the secret of porcelain manufacture to themselves for centuries, but in the early 1700s, Europeans finally figured out how to make it on their own, and a European porcelain industry promptly exploded. One of the results of this industry was the porcelain doll, which originated in England around the 1770s. Early British porcelain dolls were crude and basic, but the design had clear potential. German and Dutch companies picked up the style and began making porcelain dolls, and in the 1820s, a huge fad developed.

Germany and the Czech Republic have long been centers of porcelain doll production, and both of these regions are famous for their life-like, delicate dolls. Paris also became a major location for doll manufacturing, with porcelain dolls from this famous French city sporting the latest fashions. The French also developed the bebe, the first porcelain doll designed to look like a child, instead of an adult. Well through the Edwardian Era, dolls made from porcelain were very popular and widespread in Europe.

In the 20th century, materials like plastics began to replace porcelain as the materials of choice for dollmaking. However, a market for modern and antique porcelain dolls persists, and many people collect fine examples that they find in their travels. Classically, porcelain dolls are female, although male versions are available, and they have skin which may have a matte appearance, or a slightly glossy one. Matte dolls are known as “bisque,” while glossy dolls are sometimes referred to as “china.”

The skin of a porcelain doll is classically a very pale white, with rouge and bright red lips added, along with eyes and other features. Some dolls have molded and painted hair, while others wear wigs, and the doll is usually posable, thanks to the soft body at the core of the doll. There are many different styles and designs available, and several companies publish guides to antique dolls which people can use as references when determining the provenance and value of a doll.

Curiously enough, although porcelain is a famous product of China, the Chinese have historically used materials like wood and paper mache for their dolls.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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