Stop the Violence Against Dutch Dolls!

In the nineteenth century, French dolls in picture books were frequently subjected to harsh discipline at the hands of their not-so-loving owners.  In one extremely vivid illustration, the girl pulls up the doll’s petticoats and skirts over its neatly coiffed head and savagely whips its naked wooden bottom while her brother watches.

English dolls were not treated much better, especially if they happened to be Dutch [i.e. “Deutsch”] dolls.   By “Dutch dolls,” I don’t mean so-called character dolls, or figures dressed up in national costumes.   That kind of Dutch doll complete with clogs are readily available for sale on E-Bay or Etsy.   What I’m referring to are the cheap wooden joined dolls that used to be quite common in the nursery.  These curious objects, as often as not drawn undressed with their private parts exposed, seem to have brought out the latent sadistic impulses of authors and illustrators to a rather alarming degree.

Let’s take a look at one of the delightful cat books illustrated by Nicola Bayley, Fun with Mrs. Thumb by Jan Mark.  It’s obvious from the opening lines of Mark’s poem that Mrs.Thumb must be a doll living in a doll’s house, but the kind of doll is not specified.  It would be interesting to know whose idea it was to make Mrs. Thumb a Dutch doll– the author’s or the illustrator’s.

The narrator-cat eases up to the doll’s house to wreak havoc, or what it disingenuously calls playing with Mrs. Thumb.  It meows, ” Mrs. Thumb, / Mrs. Thumb! / Leave your chair / and cross the room. /Let me into / your house. / I will not eat you / –promise! / I am full of milk / and mouse.”

The Dutch doll’s expression is blank, but she knows the cat is up to no good when he tries to lure her out of her hiding place: “See what I have / brought today: / my lovely fur, / my lovely purr, / my lovely paws, / full of claws.”   Her options for eluding the monstrous velveteen paw are limited at best.

What if Mrs. Thumb were a mouse?  I would bet a bag of Greenies that Jan Mark’s poem would never have been published, because of the objections to exposing young children to pictures of a cat playing with its prey.  But because the cat is torturing an antique Dutch doll, which can’t feel anything, it is perfectly acceptable to laugh at the poor toy.  What if a Barbie doll were substituted in the illustrations?  Would our reactions to the story have been the same?

The poor defenseless Dutch doll has been subject to a lot worse in children’s picture books than being given a tumble by a cat waiting for someone to open a can of tuna for dinner.   I’d like to reassure you that the systematic mistreatment of Dutch dolls is symptomatic of our time’s coarsened sensibilities, but it was omnipresent in Edwardian picture books.  I decided against reproducing a photographic illustration of a car crash staged with Dutch dolls and chose instead a rather anodyne version of this favorite subject from the Uptons’ first book in the Golliwogg series.  It is bad enough.  The vehicle has no seat belts for its numerous passengers.  There are so many dolls crowded into the back that one of the tiniest of them has fallen into the road, with another one poised to topple over after her.  The driver seems blissfully unaware that an accident has taken place.  It’s impossible to say if it was because she had to concentrate on steering the contraption with the horse’s bridle or if she was listening to the doll behind her who seems to be urging her to speed up.

Perhaps the worst of the lot is The Book of the Little Dutch Dolls.   Don’t be fooled by the adorable title page vignette.  It’s a sinister foreshadowing of what follows–the cheerful Dutch dollies doing violence to their bodies, removing bits and pieces for the sheer fun of it. 

How jolly this all must have been once upon a time before our consciences were raised…  Now it’s a little hard to look at picture books featuring Dutch dolls without feeling somewhat guilty, conflicted and even a little queasy.  There’s probably an article here…

“Of Toys I Scribble:” Christopher Comical’s Lecture upon Games and Toys


Books on children’s games published before 1800 anywhere in Europe tend to survive in remarkably low numbers and the 1789 Lecture upon Games and Toys in two parts is no exception.  There is one copy of the first part at the University of Pittsburgh and one copy of the second in Cotsen.   Even Peter and Iona Opie, the great collectors and scholars of children’s lore, language, amusements, toys, and books, did not have either part, so when Iona needed the illustration of boys playing trap ball for Children’s Games with Things (1997), she had Cotsen’s copy photographed (we were honored to have a picture in the last volume of the Opie trilogy on children’s games!).

From Iona Opie’s standpoint as a folklorist, Christopher Comical (whoever he may have been) was a disappointment because his text for the illustrations didn’t explain how the games were played.   Comical, as poet laureate to the Lilliputians, was a moralist who teased out the parallels between ephemeral pastimes, proverbs, and the serious business of life, a little like Jakob Cats, the famous Dutch writer of emblems for children.

But Iona certainly would have appreciated what the illustrations reveal about who played what, where, and why.   Aerobic exercise is for boys, as are team sports.  

Activities that increase physical dexterity can be for both boys and girls, although it looks as if girls have to practice their skills indoors decorously seated on a chair.The only game in the book that shows boys and girls playing together is battledore, which here is an indoor play, perhaps out of deference to the young lady’s modesty.  Even so, it is hard to believe that the players never got worked up and had fun smashing the battledore into the walls, the furniture, or face of the opponent.

The toys included in the book reveal the most about expectations for boys versus girls.  Activities with no purpose except to make noise are just for  boys.   Girls, however, appear delighted with a “useful” toy like a miniature spinning wheel that  encourages them to embrace the hard work of housewifely responsibilities.

Boys, on the other hand, can indulge in something like doll play with toy horses, which surely whetted the anticipation of owning horses for riding or driving fast.

There is something dispiriting  about a mirror being classified as a toy for girls.  The implication is that a girl, being naturally vain of her looks, will gaze at her reflection in the mirror for long spells, which makes it a kind of pastime that ought not to be countenanced.  There is no parallel object for boys…

I was amazed to discover that this two-volume “lecture”  on games and toys may have been inspired by an act in London around the time of its publication.   A Mr. Cresswick, a would-be actor and teacher of elocution, was giving public readings which concluded with “a series of moral and entertaining observations about a cabinet of toys.”  Could the frontispiece have been drawn from an actual performance?  The children are seated on benches or standing close to a man holding forth, with a whirligig in his hand, and several other toys strewn on the table in front of him.