Marie Randall doesn’t remember when her passion for dolls first arose – but she knows.
“I’ve always loved dolls,” says Randall, who recalls her parents telling her, “When they put me to bed at night, they could hardly find room for me, because I had to have all my dolls.”
Years later, she found one of her childhood dolls while cleaning out her parent’s home. However, the Magic Skin Baby doll, which was covered in a rubber-like substance to simulate soft skin, had deteriorated badly, so she “pitched it.” Still, she continued to think about the doll and felt, “it would be really neat” to have one. And so, in 1998, with an initially unsuccessful search of e-bay, began one of the largest doll collections in southwestern Ontario.
While searching for her Magic Skin Baby, Marie ran across an old composition doll at a farm auction. Made of wooden material, composition dolls are susceptible to dampness, insects and temperature changes and rarely found in mint condition. This particular doll was in reasonable condition with “Reliable Made in Canada” embossed on the back of the neck. After some cleaning, minor repairs and a new outfit brought the doll back to life, she began researching composition dolls and the history of Canadian doll companies. Her auction sale find turned out to be a 1940s Eaton Beauty doll – not bad for a first try.
Today, Randall’s collection includes roughly 400 dolls of varying ages and styles. The collection eventually outgrew the Holstein home she shares with her husband, Earl and eventually took over an entire apartment in the building the couple own and live in.
The apartment also contains a workshop area, where Marie works on doll restoration and repair. In addition to working on her own collection, Randall is often called upon to help restore the treasurers of other collectors. On one occasion, she spent a week with a woman from the Toronto area, who stayed with her sister in Mount Forest, while working with Randall each night to restore a prized doll. Marie insisted the woman do much of the work herself. She notes that many people are afraid to work on their own dolls because they’re afraid one slip could ruin it. Such concerns are misplaced, says Randall, as long as you follow her golden rule of restoration – only use water-based products.
Depending on the dolls condition, restoration can be a simple as some clean-up and a new outfit, or as extensive as taking the doll completely apart and replacing the elastic core that joins the dolls limbs, head and torso. At that point it becomes a two-person job, with Marie’s husband pitching in. While he enjoys helping to restore the dolls, Earl leaves the acquisitions to Marie, who once came home with two identical dolls for which, she paid $150 each. Any doubts Earl had about the purchase dissolved when she later sold one of the dolls, via the internet, to a collector in Japan for $1,200.
Randall’s collection includes china head and wax dolls from the 1870s in original costumes, composition dolls from the 1900s to the 1940s; the Magic Skin Babies, walking dolls, and hard plastic dolls of the 1950’s and the vinyl and plastic baby and fashion dolls produced from the 1960’s to the current time.
The collection runs the gamut from rare collectibles to dolls kept just for fun. The latter includes many dolls which have been dressed and styled to fit into scenes Randall enjoys creating. Nursery Rhyme characters, a 50’s greaser scene, a doll’s tea party and an old saloon setting complete with poker playing can all be found during a walk through Randall’s display areas. Classic “Kewpie” dolls, an Elvis Presley likeness, characters from The Flintstones and Howdy Doody are also part of the mix.
The collectors items include a porcelain-head doll bearing the stamp of the “Cyrus Little and Sons” company. It’s one of only three such dolls found anywhere. Randall says the models predate the earliest known doll companies in Canada, which began operations in 1911. Their exact origin remains a mystery.
“Possibly they were prototypes for a doll that was never launched,” suggests Randall, adding the dolls may also have been made by someone in the pottery business for their own children and never intended for production.
Amazingly, this storied doll was found in a flea market, a venue that, along with auction sales and antique shops is one of the best for doll hunters. These days, of course, many transactions also take place through web-based forums. This is how Marie eventually tracked down and purchased the doll that started it all, a magic skin baby. Just before Christmas 2008 she bought her from a lady in Prince Edward Island in like-new condition with original clothes and hair bow and her original hang tag.
With her collection still evolving (it’s not growing so much, due to lack of space), Randall is spending more and more time doing repairs for others, as well as showing her collection and speaking on dolls and restoration to interested groups. It’s an interest she plans to expand when she retires from her current work in the insurance industry.
The interest in doll collecting is clearly high in the area. A showing of part of Randall’s collection in 2009 was one of the most successful exhibits ever held at the Harriston-Minto Heritage Gallery. It’s an interest that’s not confined to one gender.
“This is not just a women’s thing,” Marie points out. “About 80 per cent of the most serious doll collectors are men. Men see something they want and they buy it and they pay whatever it takes. Women are more reserved.”
For more information on doll collecting and restoration, contact Randall at 519-334-3002.