Betsy McCall Comes Out of Storage

When I’m cooped up inside on a snowy weekend, I weed my collections. Tired textiles are boxed up for new adventures, file folders are purged of their contents, and precious real estate on my bookcase is freed up for new acquisitions. I might not have been able to hit the road, but at least some of my stuff did! 

There are still those things that I can’t bring myself to part with, like my collection of paper dolls. As I sorted through them recently, I’ll admit that I folded the well-worn tabs of a few favorite outfits over taped-up figures of Mary Poppins, Snow White, Mrs. Beasley, the Waltons, Donny and Marie, Holly Hobbie…and Betsy McCall. 

Betsy McCall first appeared on the pages of McCall’s magazine in May 1951. Just about every month for the next several decades, this charming fictional character held court on her own page, sharing a story and a few outfits from her latest adventure. Kay Morrissey was the first illustrator of the Betsy McCall page, followed by Ginnie Hofman in 1958 and Sue Shanahan in the late 1990s. 

My copy of "Betsy McCall Visits the Joffrey Ballet," McCall's, February 1972Over the years, Betsy pursued typical little-girl activities like dancing and piano lessons, learning to roller skate, writing to Santa Claus, decorating Easter eggs, going camping, reciting a poem in a school assembly program and making a hollyhock doll.

Her page also conveyed unique experiences like meeting Captain Kangaroo, paying a call on Leonard Bernstein and being a guest at Roy Rogers’ ranch and the White House.     

In New York, Betsy took in Radio City Music Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the United Nations, the Joffrey Ballet and the Westminster Dog Show. She also toured the McCall’s office, where she saw the test kitchens, got a high hairdo in the Beauty Clinic, and saw the magazine’s art and pattern departments.

Well-traveled Betsy took a trailer trip to Yellowstone and a ride on the California Zephyr. She visited Cape Cod, Greenfield Village, Disney World, Sanibel Island, Colonial Williamsburg and West Point. She played Sweden’s St. Lucia and wrote from destinations like Italy, Bermuda, “Me-he-ko” and Spain. 

Betsy also set a good example. She taught little girls how to embroider and cook. She decoupaged the box that her mother used to save favorite greeting cards. She saved for a bond and learned symbol language. She did a good turn by baking gingerbread for a Brownie Scout troop party and giving her share to her grandma. And her class at school organized a fashion show of costumes from around the world, inspired by a United Nations book called The Wonderful World of Clothes. Proceeds from the dime admission charge went to the United Nations Children’s Fund. 

With a Betsy McCall cookie for my sixth birthday, October 1, 1975When Betsy had a cookie-decorating party in December 1971, she used a cookie cutter that resembled her. On the next page, you could order the cookie cutter for yourself. To celebrate my sixth birthday in 1975, my mother treated my classmates to eight-inch cookies of Betsy McCall dressed in a Peter Pan-collared blouse and light-blue tunic, just like our CSG uniform. 

Betsy’s fashions weren’t just confined to the page. Parents could give their little girls their own versions of Betsy’s dreamy outfits, either by sewing them with McCall’s patterns or buying them ready-made at department stores like Nieman Marcus, J.C. Penney and The Union, that much-missed Columbus shopping destination. 

Betsy ventured beyond her McCall’s page to inspire Rosemary Clooney’s 1953 recording of “Betsy, My Paper Doll,” I’ve heard.  In 1965, a Little Golden Book called Betsy McCall: A Paper Doll Story Book was published. Betsy also came to life as a three-dimensional doll, either as 16-inch rag doll you could make from a McCall’s pattern, or as a collectible 8” or 14” vinyl doll. Betsy McCall dolls were produced by the Ideal Toy Company from 1952 to 1958, followed by the American Character Doll Company and the Tanner Doll Company, I discovered. In 1997, a Betsy McCall doll was included in “Classic American Dolls,” a pane of 15 commemorative postage stamps. My mother gave my aunt Cindy a Betsy McCall doll for Christmas around 1958, which Cindy then shared with me when I was little. Grandma made her some clothes, including a Valentine pinafore, a red wool shift, and the Black Watch plaid CSG winter uniform that she’s wearing right now.  My Betsy McCall doll in her CSG uniform

A couple of thoughtful people have created online archives of Betsy McCall pages that you can print out. Betsy’s first 10 years of pages are available here.  You can find selected pages from the 1950s through the 1990s here.  

Some people might not call paper dolls “work,” but researchers of popular culture, fashion and history know they’re a very special type of collection that’s worth studying because it can yield tantalizing results. 

To brush up on paper doll history, I reached for The Encyclopedia of Ephemera, one of the best books on my shelf. I learned that some of the earliest paper dolls were made by dressmakers, whose cut-out sketches previewed garments that customers could commission. Paper dolls also appeared in children’s story books, as well as in the European toy theatres of the 1850s, where miniature stage prosceniums, backcloths and cut-out paper figures with slip-over costumes folded at the shoulder line recreated popular plays of the day. 

Paper doll outfits made by Hope Turner of Marietta, Ohio, from the collections of the Ohio Historical Society Paper dolls populate the collections of cultural heritage institutions. At the Ohio Historical Society, I’ve seen paper doll outfits that were made by Hope Turner of Marietta, Ohio circa 1893-1895. Patterned after clothing designs from Harper’s Bazaar and made of crepe paper, this fashionable wardrobe of over 40 pieces includes a puff-sleeved cape with ruffled cuffs; a winter dress with a tiered skirt and brown velvet trim; a summer dress with a sailor collar; a bathing costume with blue pants and a bow; a brimmed hat decorated with feathers and ribbons; a hip-length jacket with leg-o’mutton sleeves; and a suit with fur trim and a gold pin and a ruff. Some garments are decorated with pieces of doilies and eyelet trims; others are embellished with motifs executed with watercolors and ink drawings. Two paper dolls wearing modest undergarments and black stockings complete the set.

Paper dollhouse rooms are in the collections of the Winterthur Museum and Library and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. You can read more about them in “Scrapbook Houses for Paper Dolls: Creative Expression, Aesthetic Elaboration, and Bonding in the Female World,” a chapter in The Scrapbook in American Life, edited by Susan Tucker, Katherine Ott and Patricia P. Buckler. In the chapter, Beverly Gordon describes how the paper dollhouse was a type of scrapbook that was popular between about 1875 and 1920. Similar to collage albums, they featured double-page spreads containing collages of rooms that were furnished with pasted-in wallpaper, curtains made of lace or net, scraps, and pictures of furniture and home accessories cut from magazines and other publications. The rooms provided a setting for paper dolls, either as outlets for girls’ play or ladies’ artistic creativity. 

Books of paper doll fashions provide fascinating fashion history details. Some of my favorites include Tom Tierney’s creations for Dover PublicationsThe Princess Diana Paper Doll Book of Fashion, by Clarissa Harlowe and Mary Anna Bedford, with illustrations by Dona Granata; and Heroine of the Limberlost: A Paper Doll Biography of Gene Stratton-Porter, Norma Lu Meehan’s book featuring the clothes of the Indiana novelist, naturalist and natural history photographer. Kathryn McMurtry Hunt’s paper doll books published by Texas Tech University Press — On My Honor: A Paper Doll History of the Girl Scout Uniform, Volume One; Whene’er You Make a Promise: A Paper Doll History of the Girl Scout Uniform, Volume Two and Helping Hands: A Paper Doll History of the Girl Scout Uniform, Volume Three — are an excellent visual history of Girl Scout uniforms.

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