Dressing FLOTUS: A 1939 Maybelle Mercer Paper Doll Book

Long before the Smithsonian mounted its popular exhibition about the First Ladies of the United States, which includes actual gowns that were worn at their husbands’ inaugural balls, there was a paper doll book.  Designed by Maybelle Mercer, it’s a  parade of gorgeous dresses worn by the female residents of the White House from Martha Washington to Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. Four smartly coiffed paper dolls are printed on the back cover   Tall and slim, the lengths of their torsos and limbs indicate that they must be as tall as professional basketball players.  Their alluring undergarments are entirely modern–forerunners of Spanx, perhaps?  Not a token corset for historical accuracy in sight, but none of these lovelies would need that foundation garment to fit into a dress with a wasp waist.  Long skirts will conceal their sleek high-heeled pumps.

To stage a fashion show of the First Ladies’ finery, the dolls must be punched out and mounted on the stands provided. Then the gowns must be curated.   Each dress includes a biographical sketch of the original owner and information about the fabrics, styling, and occasion when it was worn.  Notice that paper facsimiles of these late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century gowns have two unwieldy tabs to secure them to the dolls’ shoulders.The fun facts about the dresses may have taken from some other source, perhaps some between wars Smithsonian publication or exhibition.

This plate pits Mrs. Woodrow Wilson against Martha Jefferson Randolph.  Choosing between these two visions in black and white is difficult, unless your loyalty to Princeton is unconditional…

Maybelle Mercer’s paper doll book seems to be relatively common on the collectibles market, so perhaps many of the original purchasers never could bear to take out  scissors and cut the dresses away from the copy, leaving an untidy pile of irregularly shaped bits and pieces.  Or perhaps Saalfield the publisher kept it in print for some time.

Discovering this paper doll book in the stacks  on a quest for tigers to be displayed in the “Welcome Back, Tigers” exhibition for Reunions was a pleasant surprise.   Cotsen’s collection of paper doll books does not have all that many of the “famous faces” type, except for  ones about Twiggy and Shirley Temple, which were recent acquistions.  A future post for the sets featuring twins, children of different ethnicities, etc. is clearly in order.  Until then, if you’d like to see more paper dolls in Cotsen, take a look at the post about the ones designed by Elizabeth Voss

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