“Miss Chalkley,” A Georgian Wooden Doll,
Acquired for American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
It might surprise children today that such a curious-looking doll would have been a desired plaything in the late 18th century but such would have been the case. American portraits of children by such famed painters as Charles Willson Peale, who captured the likenesses of George Washington and other great men of the founding generation, also preserved for posterity a number of portraits of English wooden dolls in the arms of prominent new Americans in the 1780s.
Christened “Miss Chalkley” by her last private owners, this rare doll was found at Chalkley Farm in southern England, along with two others. Dating to circa 1770, our 26-inch-tall doll is well-preserved, indicating that she was carefully kept by her 18th-century child owner and passed down from generation to generation until the late 20th century. Most likely made by a London toymaker, her carefully carved nose, chin and ears, inset almond-shaped pupiless eyes – a costly addition when they could have been more readily and cheaply painted – and carved pursed lips. All her features, including her painted eyebrows, point to the recognized standards of female beauty in the 18th century.
The doll has human hair hand-sewn into a silk skull cap, which is tacked to her skull and covered with a white cloth cap usually hidden under her striped-silk over-bonnet. Her turned and hand-finished wooden body is jointed at the knees, hips and elbows, and her upper arms are of hair-stuffed linen cloth – all features attesting to her gentry status.
Rarest of all, the doll’s silk gown was sewn from 18th century materials, and her linen chemise, petticoats and bum roll are original. Trailing from her shoulders are two long “tails” of matching silk — “leading strings” indicating that this doll is dressed to represent a young child rather than a grown woman as might at first be expected. In the 18th century, adult and children’s clothing styles were very similar, and leading strings served the practical purpose of guiding a toddler in her first steps. Hidden under her skirts are hand-stitched, sturdy, leather boots with applied soles that are not only original to her but a work of the cobbler’s art on their very own. From her linen chemise to her cap, the clothing is constructed and functions like that of her human counterpart, leading us to wonder if the doll not only served as a teaching tool in the construction of garments by young fingers but on the often-complicated art of dressing and disrobing at the time of the American Revolution.
Though the American colonies broke with Great Britain, the trade links between consumers and suppliers were quickly re-established following the decisive American victory at Yorktown. Luxury goods such as English wooden dolls continued to cross the Atlantic, as can be seen in many portraits of the 1780s.