A Short History of Antique German Bisque Dolls

Dolls are popular collectibles. The ones with bisque heads that were made in the Thuringia region of Germany beginning in the latter half of the 19th century are eagerly sought by some collectors. This first generation of bisque dolls continued to be made into the 1930s.

Antique German Bisque Doll
Antique German Bisque Doll

Germany’s east-central region was the ideal place for making dolls with bisque heads because it had plentiful deposits of natural clay. The area also had a skilled workforce to design and craft dolls.

As early as the 1850s, a fewGerman companies were competing with the French in selling dolls with bisque heads. Unlike the earlier dolls with heads that today are termed porcelain, these itemswere not glazed before the first firing.

By withholding glazing until later, the skin of the dolls was less glossy, giving it a more lifelike appearance. After the initial firing, skin tones and facial features were painted on, and after those applications, the head was fired again one or two times.

Some bisque dolls were shoulder-head dolls for which the head and the shoulders were in one piece, and they were attached to a separate body. Bodies were of wood, cloth, stuffed leather, composition (a mixture of wood pulp and glue) or celluloid, depending on the time period during which they were created.

A common way of putting the head on the body was to attach it by sewing. Often, factory preset holes made this placement possible. Another kind of bisque doll was the socket-head doll, for which the head was set into a socket in the body. Some bisque dolls even had flange necks. Doll owners attached them to the body by pulling a connecting material through the holes on the bottom of the neck ridge.

The Companies

At one time, hundreds of doll manufacturers operated in the Thuringia region. Bisque-headdoll making took off there in the late 1880s. Until the late 1890s when French companies began to makebisque headsin large numbers, German manufacturers produced some of the world’s most finely detailed bisque heads.

In fact, German companies were still exporting doll heads to France and the U.S. into the early decades of the twentieth century. This piece discussessix German manufacturers of bisque dolls.

Two German Bisque-Doll Companies

Simon & Halbig, which owned a porcelain factory, began making dolls with bisque heads around 1869. The company eventually supplied doll heads for products sold in American stores, among them Gimbel Brothers, FAO Schwartz and John Wanamaker.

The firm also sold heads to French doll makers and to other German doll makers.One of those firms was Kammer & Reinhardt. Founded in 1886, Kammer & Reinhardt built a solid reputation for its character dolls even though it wasn’t the sole company to produce dolls of this type.

Dolls in this category got their name because they were fashioned after a celebrity, a real-life ordinary person or a style of dress.  From around 1886 to 1909, Kammer & Reinhardt produced dolls with bisque heads on bodies that were usually either composition or stuffed leather.

Though Kammer & Reinhardt designed its own doll heads and bodies, most of its heads were made by Simon & Halbig. Kammer & Reinhardt continued to make large numbers of dolls with bisque heads untilapproximately 1920, when it then added dolls with composition and celluloid heads. Around this time too,Kammer & Reinhardt purchased Simon & Halbig.

Princess Elizabeth Doll

Circa 1929, Schoenau & Hoffmeister asked sculptor Caesar Schneider to do a head of Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) based on a photo of her. When it was ready for sale around 1930, the Princess Elizabeth Doll had a mohair wig of short, blond hair; blue sleeping eyes; a small, open mouth with red lips; a composition body; and a frilly dress.

The doll was a prototype, and since the Royal Family is said to have pronounced its arms and legs too chubby, it never went into mass production. The item was available in at least two heights, around 17 inches and around 22 inches.

Three Other German Doll-Making Companies

The Kestner company had been making dolls since around 1805, when it made dolls with papier-mâché heads. By the 1860s, the company was making dolls with bisque heads. It also made the bodies for its products.

Armand Marseille, a Russian immigrant, purchased a German toy factory in 1884, and in 1885 he bought a porcelain factory. His enterprise was soon making bisque heads and purchasing bodies from other companies.

Though the Gebruder Heubach company had been making porcelain products at its factory since 1840, it didn’t start making bisque doll heads until 1910. Doll making at the Gebruder Heubach factory peaked from around 1910 through the 1920s.

Heubach dolls are known for their expressive faces that cover a range of emotions. The company also produced a large variety of dolls. This doll maker carved out a niche for itself by producing character dolls and baby dolls. Another of its characteristic dolls was one with intaglio eyes, which were eyes that were inset or cut into the head and then painted.

Doll Classifications

The Princess Elizabeth doll of Schoenau & Hoffmeister is an example of a character doll.  The category gets its name because the product is fashioned after a celebrity, after a real-life common person such as a baby or an infant, or after a particular style of dress.  Beginning in the late 1890s, this kind of doll gained in popularity.

At this time too, dolls with bisque faces that resembled young children became popular.Many products had what collectors call ‘dolly faces’. They featured big eyes and small, open mouths.

The adult fashion doll is a third classification. Made for women, it sometimes came dressed in clothes made of the finest materials. Frequently, shoes, undergarments and accessories were also available. Wealthy women often used this product as a sample to show to the people who made their clothes.

Identification of German Bisque Dolls

Dolls with bisque heads made during the period discussed here usually had markings of the maker, city and/or factory stamped or incised somewhere on them. The number of the mold from which the doll was made was also a part of the branding. The neck or the back was the most common place for the notations

In 1891, the U.S. began requiring all imports to bear the country of origin on them. A search of theInternet or reading books about dolls shows the many identifying words and marks that manufacturers of bisque dolls used.

Tips for Collecting German Bisque Dolls

Many kinds of dolls are available for purchase. They range sub price from under $100 to thousands of dollars. When considering bisque dolls for sale, follow some of these guidelines.

1. Read books, articles and view videos about dolls with bisque heads.

2. Buyers should select a doll that’s in the best condition their budget allows.

3. Keep up with auctions and online sales.

4. Find out if the item is all-original or whether parts of it have been restored.

5. Discover whether the clothing is original and if accessories such as hats and shoes are included.

6. Look for markings that identify the manufacturer, mold and, possibly, the date of production.

7. Consider the rarity of the doll.

8. Note the material the body is made of.

9. Discover the mechanisms that make the arms, legs and eyes move, if applicable.

10. Think about the visual appeal of the doll.

11. Seek the help of a reputable doll appraiser if the doll is expensive or if there are doubts about its authenticity.

German-man bisque dolls brought joy to children and adults alike. They do today too, whether for the simple pleasure of gazing on them as displays or as an investment. Knowledge about their history can only enhance the pleasure of owning them.

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