Betsy McCall Doll - Out of the Golden Age of Dolls and into our Hearts!
The popular home arts and fashions magazine, McCalls, first had the bright idea
to include a paper doll in their publication in 1904. The editors rightly guessed
that mothers would be even more inclined to purchase the magazine if it contained
this nice little extra for their daughters to play with. Over the next 5 decades,
McCalls printed a variety of paper dolls, but their first truly big success with this
concept came in 1951 with a little paper doll girl named Betsy McCall! To the right,
I show a copy of the magazine that introduced Betsy McCall to the world.
Betsy was a spunky little girl with a pug nose, brown eyes and a brown
bob. Each edition of McCalls after her release came with a little story
and then a set of paper dolls and cut out clothing for Betsy.
Sometimes she'd be working in the yard, helping Mom around the house, or celebrating
a holiday. The fun little anecdotes were meant to inspire children to act
out the stories with their paper dolls and little girls across America
begged their mothers to pick up the magazine so that they could have
the very latest Betsy.
Though using paper cut outs as an incentive to buy magazines was
certainly not a new marketing technique, few dolls would ever enjoy
the longevity and tremendous popularity of Betsy McCall.
To the left, you can see an image of Besty McCall in 1955, wearing her
fluffy red dress with it's classic 1950's circle skirt. Other characters
in the McCall family of paper dolls were introduced over time. There
was Betsy's father, James McCall, named after the magazine's founder.
Betsy's mother was only ever referred to as Mrs. McCall, but Betsy
had sisters and brothers and a little dog named Nosey. Betsy's
cousins, Linda, Barbara and Sandy McCall, and her friends, Jimmy Weeks,
Drusilla and Suki all made appearances in various episodes of the Betsy
story over the years.
The First Betsy McCall Plastic Dolls
McCall's realized that they had a success on their hands, and in 1951, they partnered
with the Ideal Toy Company to create a 14" Betsy McCall doll in the relatively new
medium of plastic which had first been used by Madame Alexander Doll Company in conjunction
with Dupont. The contract to make Besty McCall dolls then passed on to the American
Character Doll company in 1957 and you can see just how charming
these Betsy McCall dolls were from this photo shown at right. Betsy's doll clothing
serves as a visual, historical documentation of 1950's fashions. Her calf-length full coat
in its bold black and white check are wonderful. A walk through the streets of New York City
or San Francisco in 1957 would have shown you ladies dressed exactly like this, and all topped
off with the perfect little black hat. Beneath the coat, this Betsy McCall doll wears a
frilly white blouse and red circle skirt to match her red shoes. This is an exquisite
sample of a vintage Betsy McCall in extremely good condition, and one can see she has been
kept with care.
Betsy's brown hair is a rooted saran wig and she has sleepy eyes with plastic upper lashes
and painted lower ones. She is 8" tall. The American Character Doll Company also produced
14", 20", 22" and 29" Betsys. The Uneeda Doll Corporation was hired to create an 11 1/2" doll,
and in the 1970's, Horsman produced still further Besty McCall dolls.
Betsy McCall Paper Dolls 1970s - 1990's
McCall's continued to produce paper dolls, both in their magazine and for mail order sales.
For 10 cents in 1955, a child could send away for a set of Betsy and her family. In 1962,
a very popular Betsy McCall paper doll set came out that was available by mail order and
came with eighteen complete costumes! This one cost 25 cents. By 1978, the cost of mail
order Betsy McCall paper dolls had risen to $1.00. To the right, you can see a fine
example of what these dolls looked like, taken from a 1976 edition of McCalls. Betsy
still had her bob, but McCalls had made sure to keep up with the times, and Betsy
has a slightly more natural look in keeping with the fashions of the decade. She is seen
here getting ready to plant some seeds in the garden. She is all set to go in her overalls,
and also had a set of flannel pyjamas as well as a pants/shirt set.
I find this particular series of dolls from the 1970's to be such an
excellent history lesson in terms of how cultural ideals had changed.
Rather than poodles and party dresses, this little paper girl is
promoting communing with nature and playing in the yard. A lot had
changed since the 1950's.
To the right, you can see a more recent, 1993 Betsy McCall paper doll. It's very
interesting to observe how Betsy's look changed from era to era and in the hands of the
many different illustrators who created these paper dolls. The 1970's paper dolls
had a more realistic look, but by the 1990's, we see a more symbolic and cartoon-like
Betsy again. No doubt, this is in keeping with the modern popular style of animation
for children, and even the choice of colors has that modern feel. In this particular
story, Betsy is going with her family to visit Graceland on a summer vacation. She has
a folksy cowgirl costume and a blue pants suit with bellbottoms that I bet her 70's
sisters would be able to relate to! The last Betsy McCall paper doll appeared in
McCalls in 1995.
Betsy McCall's Place in the Golden Age of Doll Making
Doll collectors often refer to the 1950's as the Golden Age of Doll making
because of the immense talents being poured into the industry during that
Madame Alexander Dolls, Ginny Dolls and
Nancy Ann Dolls were at
their peak popularity during this time with their lavish wardrobes and
fabulous attention to detail. Betsy McCall deserves her place among them,
and ,indeed, I have often wondered if her distinctive face might not have
been in Madame Alexander's mind when she created here famous Cissie fashion
doll in 1955. Both dolls feature a face that is wider than it is long...a
look that was quite popular in the illustrated advertisements of the 1950s.
Their eyebrows, eyes, other facial features and hair all look as though they
might have come to life from an ad selling cosmetics or perfume in this era.
Both Ideal and American Character Doll companies did a lovely job of designing
fashions for the various plastic Betsy dolls. Look at this white party dress with its
ruffles and trim and flounces. Any little girl would have been thrilled to receive
a doll like this and to act out fun little games with her. Culturally speaking,
Betsy McCall dolls fit right in with the ideals of the age. She is fun loving and
yet tidy and modest. She fits in with Donna Parker - that famous girl detective whose
exciting adventures were captured in the popular 1950's series of books for young girls.
She fits in with all the recipes in vintage Betty Crocker cookbooks that tell us that
young people have fun making fudge, listening to records and having an at-home ice cream
parlor party. She looks like a neighbor girl you would have played hopscotch and jump rope with
and had a great time. She is as American, sweet and wholesome as apple pie.
Vintage dolls have a wonderful ability to encapsulate a moment in time. Even if they
come from an era before we were born, holding a doll from the past connects us to
former times and former ideals of happiness and pleasure. The care that was put into
dolls of 1950's is especially notable for this. When we hold a doll like Betsy McCall,
we are holding the memories and hopes and dreams of little girls of once upon a time.
Betsy McCall Today
In 2000, the Tonner doll company brought Betsy McCall back into the hearts of little
girls and doll collectors around the world. The new dolls are based on the 1950's versions
of Betsy McCall and are collectors items. To the left you can see an example of the nice
quality of these dolls and the pretty attention being paid to the detail of their clothing.
The face is reminiscent of the original Betsy, though the eyes have the much larger
place in the face that is common in modern-made dolls. Tonner has created
a line of 8" dolls as well as a line of 14" dolls.
The Current Collector's Value of Betsy McCalls
Though so charming, this brand of dolls does not appear to fetch the kinds of top dollar
prices that other 1950's dolls do at auction. Rarity and condition are the two main
factors that determine price with Betsy McCall dolls, and a doll in excellent condition
could bring in a couple of hundred dollars at auction. The paper dolls tend to sell in
the $20.00 range, as do vintage doll clothing and children's clothing patterns published
by McCalls under the Betsy McCall name. The new dolls by Tonner are often
available at auction and tend to be priced in the $50.00 range.