It’s the 1970s and you’re with your family at a craft fair, a county fair or a country boutique and that’s where you see them – little grandmas and grandpas, farm folk, even spooky witches with one-of-a-kind faces made of dried apples. These Apple Dolls seldom had a brand name, and certainly had no celebrity endorsements, but they were everywhere in that decade, and here at DollKind.com, we thought it would be fun to feature this craft doll that you may have forgotten all about, but definitely remember the moment that you see it. Like the big-eyed Bradley Dolls, apple dolls are a part of your childhood if you grew up in that era.
History And Cultural Relevance of the Apple Doll
Colonial and pioneer Americans also turned a creative eye on materials for doll making and apples, squash, corn husks or whatever else was at hand could serve admirably for putting a much-appreciate doll into a little girl’s hands. In the incomparable accounts provided by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books of a pioneer childhood, it is related that little Laura’s corn cob doll, wrapped in a blanket, is very dear to her heart, prior to receiving her cloth doll, Charlotte, later on in the story series.
In 1914, a woman named Mary McAboy actually patented a line of dried apple dolls called ‘Skookums’ that were meant to resemble Native Americans. Unlike the handmade versions crafted by people at home, these dolls were factory-made and were sold to tourists in the American west. The official Skookums dolls can be identified by their name which is stamped on their plastic shoes, or by a tag tied to foot bearing the name. These dolls did not have arms – rather, they were generally wrapped in blankets intended to evoke Indigenous blanket styles. Skookum apple dolls were produced for decades, and while the later doll heads actually came to be produced of plastic rather than dried apples, they are really the only ‘official’ apple dolls of mass-production history.
Handmade apple dolls – what some collectors think of as ‘the real thing’ – are an authentic example of American folk art. Flash forward to the 1970s and it seemed like no display of handcrafts or home decor was complete without an apple doll or two. In the above photo, taken from a display at the Lansing Public Library, you can see two genuine 1970s apple dolls, exactly the way you remember them. I was just thrilled to come across these and hope they trigger some golden memories for you, too.
This penchant for country-style crafts and Americana in the home decor and fashions of the 1970s and early 1980′s has evident roots in the fact the USA celebrated its Bicentennial in 1976. An interest in things of the past sprouted up almost overnight and even the wealthiest citizens suddenly wanted their homes to look more ‘countrified’. Close your eyes and you can conjure up memories of dried floral wreaths, wallpaper done in tiny civil-war-style floral figures, Christmas trees done up in old-fashioned fabric bows and popcorn strings, decorative straw brooms as wall decor, ladies dressed in peasant blouses and prairie fabrics, and yes, those dried apple dolls. Nearly every visual aspect of American life was touched by the Bicentennial, from odd nods to ‘Western’ design in things like television cabinets to the opening up of craft shops across the country that would enable people to make all kinds of homemade articles of decor.
The apple dolls, in their prairie dresses, straw hats, bonnets and overalls, fit right into the picture. You would see them at the teller windows of banks as part of a fall display, in the windows of boutiques where they were sure to bring in foot traffic, and most especially, standing in ranks at craft fairs and holiday gift fairs.
In my hometown, there as a yearly harvest festival. I remember so well the scent of walking into the big, dim barn filled with local apples, beautifully arranged by variety. Big wooden boxes filled with greens, yellows, reds, oranges and the fragrance was just out of the world. You could get a glass of fresh apple cider, so cold it had little splinters of ice in it, and oh so sweet. Just beside the apple barn was the hall filled with giant pumpkins – so big that, like Cinderella, I could have ridden in one as a child. There were heaps of warty gourds, striped with color. There were exquisite hand-crotcheted afghans, lovingly-made quilts, home-designed fashions, hand-carved wooden boxes and a host of other treasures entered by community members in hopes of winning a prize. The apple dolls stood amongst all of these remarkable objects.
Now, I must confess, as a small child, I found these dolls to be just a little bit spooky. My own grandparents were still young – in their 50s. They didn’t look like these shriveled folk whom I assumed must be old, old…old as the hills, perhaps. Some of them had little glittering eyes and teeth made of beads, and some were dressed up as witches for Hallowe’en, which must have added to my sense of their mysteriousness. The Christmas ones, like apple doll Santa and Mrs. Claus, seemed a little more approachable, more cute. Do you remember feeling like this about dried apple dolls back then? I’d love to have you share your memories.
The 1970s-1980s marked the height of apple doll popularity, and while they continue to be made to this day, somehow, they found a perfect niche in the 1970s that we may never see again.
The Craft of Making Apple Dolls
I don’t think the Guinness Book of World Records holds an entry for the longest-lasting apple doll, but once made, these dolls could last for years. The craft involved soaking a peeled apple in a solution of water, salt and lemon juice and then carving its features with a small knife or spoon. Next, the apple could be dried in a warm room, by a fire or in a dehydrator and this would preserve the apple and its carved face. The head could then be mounted on a body, often with a skeleton of wire covered in fabric, and, finally, the whole figure could be dressed and decorated. Wigs, clothing, hats and miniature doll house-style furnishings and accessories could be added to define the apple doll’s personality. A ton of creativity could go into this process, and some apple dolls were made to resemble famous people, historical figures or the characters in books.
Apple Dolls have not disappeared, and are frequently associated today with Mountain crafts from areas like Appalachia and the Ozarks.
Below, you can watch a video of modern crafter, Melinda Henning, who has been making apple dolls since her childhood and brings an expert level of skill to the craft:
In addition to indoor decor for those seeking country flair in their home today, Apple Dolls seem still to have a special affinity for Halowe’en. Below, you can watch a short video of a very creative mobile made of three apple dolls dressed as witches riding on brooms. What a great decoration!
Apple Dolls Today
Unlike most of the dolls featured here at DollKind.com, apple dolls are more of a craft than a plaything, meant more for brightening a home than being an object of daily play. That being said, they can be really fun to make with a child and you can find instructions for them on lots of Internet sites. It may take some patience, and skill with a small knife (child supervision is essential) helps. If you’d like to revive a past love of apple dolls in your home, all you need is an apple, some fabric and wire and a few little odds and ends. Who knows, maybe you can be the hit of this year’s county fair by bringing back everyone’s memories of these fun dolls.
Something Really Creepy….
Do you associate apple dolls with a peculiar toy you can’t quite remember? Some handmade apple dolls could lean towards the grotesque a little, but none more so than the commercially produced Shrunken Head Apple Doll Kit, as endorsed by Vincent Price. Does this advertisement ring a bell:
Released in 1975 as a sort of gag item, this rather strange toy must have been a hit with little ghouls and goblins, but it would have scared the daylights out of me! Not only did it trade on the very alarming practice of headshrinking, but it also contained a sharp knife and a very hot light bulb…well, this was back in the day when kids rode around seatbelt-free in the back of pickup trucks and no one batted an eye. If you had this toy, I hope I’ve helped you remember what it was called, but what a bizarre bit of retro fun it is!
Collectors Value of Apple Dolls
Collecting handmade apple dolls is a relatively affordable hobby, with least expensive dolls running around $15 while others into which more skill and time have been put may come nearer to $100. Labeled ‘Skookums’ dolls with tags are more expensive, but not terribly so, being in the range of about $50 for less-rare dolls and going up into the lower hundreds for the oldest dolls.
And don’t forget, you can always try making your own, which for the cost of an apple and some fabric scraps should be a craft within most people’s means.
Do you have memories about apple dolls? Please, share them!