In 2014, USA Today published a visual timeline for the history of multicultural dolls. As the link has been broken several times, we’ve decided to create a permanent place for the content. There were a few opportunities missed with the original graphic, and there has been recent movement in multicultural dolls. Both are excellent reasons for updating this information. To review the original USA Today graphic, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
1800s and Earlier
Black dolls were manufactured but were stereotyped using one of several racial slurs. These are not considered multicultural dolls because they promoted negative feelings toward a formerly enslaved race of people.
Influential psychologist G. Stanley Hall argued in his Study of Dolls that play has an important role in the socialization and education of children.
Perhaps the earliest known of the multicultural dolls, Topsy Turvy, is introduced. It balances white and black children in one paper doll. It may have debuted in a women’s sewing magazine.
A series of multicultural dolls appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal. They depicted realistic children from a wide range of groups — Mexican, French, Irish, Eskimo, Dutch — complete with respective costumes. Except for the Eskimo, these dolls did not represent ethnic Americans. These multicultural dolls celebrated cultural differences in a way that would have led children to accept the traditions of their ethnic neighbors.
A black infant doll was designed by American Grace S. Putnam called Bye-Lo Baby. It was manufactured in Germany and distributed stateside. It was typical of the new trend toward realistic play and became a top seller.
A series of paper dolls was printed in Woman’s Home Companion . A Japanese-American character named “Tamaki” was described as “a pretty little girl with pink cheeks, and the blackest hair, and the blackest eyes, and the most fascinating slanting eyebrows.”
Schoenhut Co.’s “Alphie” alphabet blocks depicted African Americans, American Indians, and East Indians in non-derogatory ways. Because they minimized ethnic characteristics, they were not the greatest example of multicultural dolls. Play had become educational, and these blocks reflected a new trend in fewer derogatory ethnic images in toys.
The White House Conference on Child Health and Protection declared that every child had a right to play, and it was “serious business.”
Husband and wife psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a historic doll study with African-American children. The Clark Doll Study asked whether a white or a black doll was preferred. 66% chose the white doll. This study in multicultural dolls became instrumental in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.
Saran Lee Creech, a white businesswoman and social activist, saw two black girls playing with a white doll. She thought that they should be able to have a doll that looks as they do. The Sara Lee doll was introduced at the start of the Civil Rights era and made an important contribution to the history of multicultural dolls.
Having created its now-famous Barbie line in 1961, Mattel introduced its first non-white doll, “Francie.” Made in the same mold as the original Barbie, she had a darker complexion and European facial features. It was early in the company’s well-publicized struggles to produce multicultural dolls. The doll was featured on the Cover of Vogue Italia in 2009.
Mattel released its first black doll. “Christie” was inspired by Julia Baker’s character in the sitcom Julia (1968-71).
In Playthings magazine, Remco boasted about its new line of “Negro” dolls: “We’ve learned that Negroes don’t take kindly to imitations. We don’t blame them. A white doll painted black is just that. That’s why Remco is so successful.” Designer Annuel McBurrows was deluged with fan mail about his multicultural dolls.
A second wave of immigrants made its way to the U.S. (an earlier immigration took place in the 1880s through the 1920s). This group would join the U.S. middle clas. Coupled with improved transportation and technology, these immigrants assimilated quickly. Popular board games like Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land are re-designed to reflect children of multiple races. Hasbro took G.I. Joe into the world of multicultural dolls when they welcomed ethnic-American fighters to their line. Each came with its own bio which provided the doll’s ethnic identity.
Coleco introduced its line of multicultural dolls called Cabbage Patch Kids. They became the top doll brand their first year and easily exceeded a billion USD in revenue.
American Girl is founded. Its original line of multicultural dolls included characters of many races, each with a historical story.
A Hofstra University psychology professor, Michael Barnes, repeated the Clark Doll Study from 1947. Even though four decades have passed, the same 66% of black children preferred a white doll over a black one.
Nickelodeon introduced a new series with accompanying multicultural dolls called Dora the Explorer. Dora was designed “pan-latina” to represent all Latino cultures. The show won a Peabody Award in 2003 “for outstanding efforts in making learning a pleasurable experience for pre-schoolers.” The brand has exceeded a billion USD in revenue.
Mattel introduced a line of African-American dolls with fuller lips, varying skin complexions and natural black hairstyles.
Doll designer Stacey McBride Irby left Mattel after creating the So In Style line to create her own line of multicultural dolls called The One World Doll Project. The company has created African-American, African, Latina, and Southeast Asian dolls to date.
More minority kids than white children were born in the United States. Driven by explosive growth in the Hispanic population, the 2014-15 school year was the first time that non-white students outnumbered white students.
Mattel released a line of multicultural Barbie dolls. This was followed by a “realistic” line in 2016 that included three new body types: curvy, tall, and petite.
Tabula Raisa is successfully funded on Kickstarter and launched its first line of multicultural dolls. “Tabby Richmond” is an 18″ rag doll of Spanish descent. In 2016, the company began to sell “Tabby Pretoria” and “Tabby Juliaca.” Pretoria is a cloth and beaded doll with a black complexion crafted by South Africans. Juliaca is a crocheted finger puppet made by Peruvian artisans.