China Head Doll Wearing a Straw Hat

The Art of China Dolls

Hi, doll face!

Blonde China head with defined shoulders, brown eyebrows, ears showing
Blonde China head with defined shoulders, brown eyebrows, ears showing

A china head is art on a doll. With or without a body, these remarkable china heads tell a story from the 1800s about a doll industry of artisans who created beautiful art for a child’s toy.

cloth doll body for a china head doll
Cloth doll body, with leather, stitched hands and large feet

China heads are made into dolls by attaching the head to a body of fabric, leather or wood,  either by threading  lengths of twill fabric through sew holes in the shoulder plate, gluing the head to a leather body, or fitting it onto a peg, wood body.

Civil War china head on a kid leather body
Civil War china head on a kid leather body, dressed in a lavish gown

In dolldom, a china head alone, without a body, is classified as a partial doll. It’s valued at 65% of its book price. And if the doll head was damaged any time within its 100 or so years of play, with or without restoration, its value is diminished to 50% from that of a pristine head. [Source: 200 Years of Dolls, Dawn Herlocher, ©2005]

By contrast, a collector can add to a doll’s value by (1) dressing the doll in spectacular or “appropriate” clothing or (2) providing the provenance of the doll and its unique history.

Outstanding China Dolls

bonnet or hatted head
Common-style, Bonnet or Hatted china head with peppering

Mold characteristics can differentiate one china head to another for serious collectors, making one more rare and desirable to another. Desirable characteristics include:

  • Bonnet or Hatted
  • Biedermier: Bald heads
  • Men’s hair styles with ears showing
  • Brown eyes, flirty eyes, glass eyes
  • Parian porcelain with embellishments
  • Uncommon hair style: braids over both ears; buns; beads intertwined in hair; flowers in hair
  • Pierced ears, open mouth, molded eyelids, molded earrings
  • Swivel necks, turned heads
  • Unique molds from the different eras: i.e., Irish Queen, Queen Victorian, Young Victoria, Princess Alexandria, Princess Mary Augusta, etc.

Antique China heads composed of glazed porcelain with its glossy appearance first appeared in the 1840s. Early German and European china heads often had “peppering” or black flecks in the glaze from the glazing process in the oven.

1987 reproduction doll from the Victorian era
Repro of Victorian era Parian china head, “Parthenia,” by Nel W.M.D. 1987: layering of hair, hair combs, gilding, pierced ears

The earliest heads were made with a thin, rolled layer of porcelain pressed into molds. Shortly afterwards, liquid porcelain was poured into the molds. Some doll books will note whether the head is pressed or poured.

Antique china heads are noted for artistic painting, such as: fine, red lines in  eye lids; red dots in the inner corners of the eyes; defined nostrils; and other hand-painted details. Exquisite, Parian china heads made from un-tinted bisque and with a matte glaze were produced during the Victorian years and featured elaborate molded embellishments, i.e., flowers, jewelry, ribbons, collars, hairbands, etc.

Civil War, Flat Top china head with sausage curls
Civil War china head with sausage curls and comb marks

China heads are generally unmarked and both classified and dated by mold characteristics. Some examples: Bald Biedermeir (1830s-1880s), Flat Top/High Brow/Civil War (1840s-1870s), Covered Wagon (1862-1884), Low Brow (after 1905), Mary Todd Lincoln (1860), Hatted or Bonnet Head (1885-1910), Curly Top (1890s), Parian (1850-1875), Pet Name (1905), Turned Head (1870s-1900), etc.

It is impossible to precisely date a china head unless marked. Doll appraisers attach an approximate date on china heads in part based on the popular hairstyles of the time. However, once a mold was created, it was used to produced doll heads for years.

Photographing Antique Dolls

Bald Biedermeir china head with a home repair
Bald Biedermeir china head with a home repair

This bald Biedermier not only sustained damage at some point in its history, but it further suffered from a home-repair rather than a professional restoration. Regardless, due to its rarity, it maintains a measured value.

In comparison, all damage is not so obvious. A good  restoration can conceal a break or crack, making it difficult to determine the integrity of the doll head. It is a good practice to closely examine a head by back lighting it under high magnification to discover any hairline cracks or covered repairs.

30 inch china doll
Gorgeous, 30-inch, china head doll with sausage curls

Recently, we missed an unseen restoration on this 30-inch doll. As the story goes, Darrell was photographing the doll and had unbuttoned a collar that secured the head from the doll body to temporarily make an adjustment. As he continued to work, he forgot the head was more propped on the doll than fastened on. He moved the doll stand to photograph the doll from a new angle.

Crash! Although the sound of the china head hitting the carpet was more of a chinking sound, it was devastating. We were saddened immediately. This beautiful doll head had survived for over a century but now was mere pieces on our carpet.

we broke this flat top china head during photography
Like Humpty Dumpty, this china head had a great fall ….

The only good news is when Darrell gathered the pieces from off the floor, he discovered fine paint lines in the bisque and seam lines on the inside revealing an earlier restoration. Had he not dropped the head or had we failed to light check the head before listing her for sale, we would have assumed the head was perfect. It looked perfect. Perfectly beautiful.

It was a professional restoration. Nevertheless, restorations must be stated when selling a doll. If you overlook a restoration when selling, you have misrepresented its condition to prospective doll buyers.

Why the Fuss Over China Head Dolls

Antique French bisque and composition doll
Pricey, antique French bisque and composition doll

It started nearly 200 years ago. Doll manufacturers in Germany wanted a less expensive method of producing a doll. The early bisque and composition dolls were costly to produce.

The solution was the china head doll.

Millions of china heads for dolls were manufactured between 1840 and the 1920s. Most were shipped without bodies for the mother to buy a manufactured body or to sew a body.

Civil War china head on Mommy body with porcelain spoon hands
Civil War china head, Mommy body, porcelain spoon hands

Doll bodies made by a mother gained the nickname, “mommy bodies.” Mom’s would sew a body for the doll head. Later, if her little girl broke dolly’s head, Mom would unlatch the broken head and latch on a new head; or if the body was damaged, Mom could sew a new body.

These prized china dolls are lovingly collected today. The earlier, more artistic, heads with special features, from renowned doll makers continue to be the more valuable and more sought after. But with any doll, it’s the doll you fall in love with that is the most beautiful.

 I thought you would enjoy the simple beauty of each China Head as we photographed them to sell online … some dolls beckon back nearly two centuries.

For more dolls, check out antique dolls on Swim Yellow Duck and Estate Trinkets and Treasures, two website I devote to art, collectibles, and antiques.

I’ve always been rather curious when I see historical dioramas and collections in commercial displays from days gone by as to why we don’t see more offerings from the child’s world that showplace toys and dolls that might have made their way into the magical lives of children in the 1800s and not a room simply filled with spinning wheels, rocking chairs, beds, kitchen ware, tools, and hunting and fishing equipment.

Until my next post – celebrate often!

Published by

Patricia Wiskur

My love for art comes from years in the studio of Wiskur Productions, with my husband, Darrell Wiskur, a designer and photographer. Also, I was an editor and photographer in the real world for 17 years ... all the while, thankful for an artful life and cherished memories. Photos are ©2019 Darrell D. Wiskur