Mysterious Bread Sculptures: Masapán of Calderón, Ecuador

I’ve been processing late arrivals to the Cotsen collection: a small group of material that was once displayed in the Neutrogena Offices during Lloyd Cotsen’s tenure. As always, Lloyd’s collection habits were eclectic, and I’ve had a very fun time describing unique material. But the most unusual additions to the collection have to be our newest (and only) pieces of leavened folk art:

In-process item

In-process item

Described only as “bread sculptures” upon arrival from our friends in Los Angeles, everyone in Special Collections was immediately struck by the surprising choice of material. Initially, I was worried about the prospect of having food in the library! Don’t worry though, after a review from our colleagues in conservation, we have deemed the material safe from attracting pests (though, sadly, quite inedible for humans).

Tasked with describing such unfamiliar objects, I turned to the internet for help. After some diligent googling about bread art traditions, including a brief cul-de-sac in which I learned about the bread-art tradition in Russian prisons which inspired a contemporary bread sculptor, I found the origin of our new items. Our “bread sculptures” are masapán, from maize dough (masa) and bread (pan), a folk art tradition practiced uniquely in Calderón; a rural parish of Quito, Ecuador.

Contemporary masapán for comparison. The color palette is more pastel than our examples. But the floral motifs remain the same.

The practice of making masapán figurines emerged in the 1940s. It grew out of the tradition of making guagua de pan, a sweet roll shaped “bread baby” decorated to look like a swaddled infant. Eaten and offered at graves on All souls’ Day, better known as the Day of the Dead, on November 2nd, the tradition is syncretic: eating T’anta wawa (Quechua for “bread” and “baby”) is an ancestral rite in many Andean regions of South America.

T’anta wawa with traditional pairing of colada morada: a drink made of local fruits, spices, and corn flour.

In Calderón, masapán expanded. It came to be used to create bread-based nativity scenes and Christmas decorations. As it’s popularity with tourists grew, masapán came to be produced year round by hundreds of local artists.

Masapán nativity ornaments

Masapán horse with small figures, a reoccurring motif.

Our exquisitely crafted examples seem to have been created in the traditional method: hand-rolled dough that is sculpted with hand-tools, air dried for days, carefully painted, and then lacquered for longevity. Our witch is perhaps Día de Muertos appropriate, while our horse with riders and small pony seem to follow a general horse-based theme.

Upclose shot of the 4 figures on the large horse. Perhaps featuring the three kings for a nativity scene?

This pony, though framed with our witch, was probably created as a standalone piece.

Though our examples are a little shaken from time and transport, they are still whole and fully display the craft skill and delicate touch used to create them. Once mysterious, I am happy to have learned so much about this unique tradition and to include these rare examples of folk art in the Cotsen collection. Cotsen is a truly appropriate home for such rare objects, since we celebrate all folk ways and stories, no matter what they are made of!

Mattel’s Happy Family of Black Paper Dolls

The toy manufacturer Mattel joined forces in the mid-1960s with the publisher Whitman to bolster the popular Barbie and Skipper brands with sets of paper dolls, a speciality of Whitman’s since the 1930s.  Some authorities think the sheer number and variety of Mattel/Whitman paper dolls produced from the 1970s onward probably dealt the genre its death’s blow by turn of the new century.  Supposedly little girls no longer play with paper dolls: it’s up to the collectors who find them fascinating to hunt down and preserve them.

While researching the recent post on Skipper, I discovered in the stacks a set of these Mattel/Whitman paper dolls, The Happy Family.   I was surprised to see represented multi-generational Black family dressed in conservative, but mod-ish fashions of the mid-seventies instead of figures that more closely corresponded with my idea of Mattel dolls.  What exactly does Cotsen have?

The minimal publishing information on the covers was enough to trace the paper dolls back to the original product line of fashion dolls.  The Whitman logo appears in the upper right-hand corner and the actual imprint, nearly illegible against the border of coarsely woven fabric, states that this is a Whitman book and that Whitman is a subsidiary of Western, better known as the publisher of Little Golden Books.  But the pamphlet is not Whitman’s intellectual property.  Barely readable In the lower right hand corner below the cross-stitching, is a statement by the copyright holder Mattel that “The Happy Family” ®, “Hal,” “Hattie,” and “Hon” are U.S. registered trademarks used here by permission of Mattel.  One of the pages of costumes has a second, much clearer copyright statement without the information about the trademarks.

Three Black fashion dolls preceded “The Happy Family” paper dolls: “Colored Francie” in 1967, which was quickly withdrawn, Christie, Barbie’s best friend, in 1968, and in 1969, Julia, modeled on performer Diahann Carroll. .  The members, dad Hal, mom Hattie, Baby Hon, and the Happy grandparents (purchased separately from the other three), were introduced in 1974 as the friends of the Sunshine Family, Steve, Steffie, Baby Sweets, and the Sunshine grandparents.  The black and the white dolls were made with the same molds for the bodies and heads. The Happy and Sunshine families had a peripheral connection at best with the 1970s Barbie universe.

If not exactly hippies or flower children, the Sunshine Family was more counterculture than the pack Barbie ran with during the Age of Aquarius.  The Sunshines ran a hobby store for a living, maintained a very well furnished art studio in the back of their truck, rode a bicycle built for three, and probably shopped in bulk at the whole foods co-op.  Wholesome and just a little folksy, the Sunshines probably would have been comfortable spending time with the other Mattel dolls who went back to nature in the 1970s..

Promotional photographs for the two toy families suggested that the Happys hung out at the Sunshines’ house (it doesn’t look as if the Happys’ accessories included their own fold-up cardboard digs).  Like the pioneering Christie and Julia Black dolls,the Happys were designed to play supporting roles to the Sunshines.  Even though the black dolls were not equal to the white ones, the fact that they were shown in a domestic space with no apparent barriers between them perhaps reflected the naive hope that if only Black and white people would spent time together, they’d discover how much they had in common and come to like each other.

Both lines were cancelled by Mattel in 1978, but reintroduced in redesigned versions in the 1980s and the early 2000s.  I wasn’t able to figure out if the new Happys were characters in their own right or if they were still supposed to be played with in the shadow of the Sunshines.