"Little Women", 1868, one year after my Great-Grandmother and Laura Ingalls Wilder were born: Nowhere does the doll represent an extension of her owner than in Alcott’s "Little Women." Since the book was written, there have been hundreds of doll representations made of the characters, in paper and 3-D form, in all media. There are also many other works or art, both serious and kitschy, that immortalize them, as well as several films and TV series.
Alcott herself was 13 when Charlotte Brontë died, and was aware of "Jane Eyre." There, Brontë writes of the importance of dolls as companions to children, and the orphan Jane only has her doll to comfort her in the desolation of the Reed house.
The March girls do not have many toys, but they have their games, pastimes, and theatrical play. Beth is the only sister described as having dolls. Thirteen year-old Beth March is the shyest of the four March girls. She loves her pets, her six misfit dolls, and her music. Anne K. Phillips writes in “Toys, Games, and Play in Little Women” that given the family’s poor economic status, six dolls seem “ a surprisingly large number of toys”. Beth is a juvenile “Angel of the House,” and at thirteen, is her mother’s best companion. She helps with household chores, but is still very much a child who cares for her sisters bedraggled, broken, and cast out dolls.
Beth often saves them from the trash or ragbag. The following description describes the relationship Beth has with her dolls: "Beth was too bashful to go to school . . . She was s housewifely little creature . . . not lonely nor idle, for her little world was peopled with imaginary friends . . .There were six dolls to be taken up and dressed every morning, for Beth was a child still, . . . not one whole or handsome one among them; all were outcasts till Beth took them in; for when her sisters outgrew their idols, they passed to her . . . Beth cherished them all the more tenderly for that very reason, and set up a hospital for infirm dolls. No pins were ever stuck into their cotton vitals; no harsh words or blows ere ever given them, no neglect ever saddened the heart to the most repulsive, but all were fed and clothed, nursed, and caressed, with the affection which never failed. One forlorn fragment of dollanity had belonged to Jo; and, having led a tempestuous life, was left a wreck in the ragbag, from which dreary poorhouse it was rescued by Beth, and taken to her refuge."
Alcott goes on to write that the poor doll has no top “to its head” and “both arms and legs were gone, she hid these deficiencies by folding it in a blanket, and devoting her best bed to this chronic invalid. Beth lavishes more love on this doll than on the others, and brings it “bits of bouquets,” reads to it, takes it for walks, “hidden under her coat,” and sings it lullabies, kissing “its dirty face, and whispering tenderly,” I hope you’ll have a good night, my poor dear." Significantly, this doll is named Joanna. Later, when Beth is terminally ill, Jo will care for her as tenderly as Beth cared for the bedraggled Joanna. As Phillips observes, none of Beth’s play is “orchestrated by Marmee: Beth chooses this activity, and her dedication to the dolls is supported by her sisters” with Jo making sure there is a clear path, even in winter, so that Beth can take Joanna on her daily walks (408). Doll play suits the nurturing Beth, who is, ironically the most motherly of all the sisters, though she will never experience motherhood herself.
Alcott herself tried at one point to support her family as a dolls dressmaker, reportedly chasing the neighbor’s chickens for feathers with which to decorate fancy doll hats (See review of McDonough’s "The Life of Louisa May Alcott."
Doll dressmakers were needed because by about 1870, little girls would have more dolls than their mother and aunts would have had. Anne K. Phillips writes of the last part of "Little Women", that “Later in the novel, Meg’s children Daisy and Demi are depicted as having more plentiful and more diverse kinds of toys” including a cooking stove and a group of wooden bears. As families became more prosperous in the 1870s, the toy market grew and grew, and there were more store-bought toys available. One sees the same effect in The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the early books, Laura’s doll is a corncob, later replaced by a rag doll her mother makes, who is named Charlotte. Mary has a rag doll, and both girls make paper dolls. They use the ragbag to dress their dolls and make others out of twigs and dolls’ teacups out of acorn caps. Later, Nellie Olsen of a more prominent family has a china doll and an expensive wax doll, and Grace, Laura’s baby sister, has a china headed doll as well.
Of course, Beth also had three older sisters and Alcott is clear that her dolls are castoffs in derelict shape. Anne K. Phillips writes that according to Miram Formanek Brunell in "Made to Play House". “Though the number of toys had increased since the colonial period, there were still few dolls around in the average middle-class household in the 1850s, a fact of doll demography that would change dramatically only after the Civil War." Phillips also quotes Formanek-Brunell for the idea that Joanna ‘s torso-like state exemplifies Jo’s, and other girls’ aggression towards their toys. There is also a doll burning in "Little Men". Actually, there were many doll parts and heads sold, as well as patterns in "Godey’s" and other magazines for making dolls and dolls’ clothes. Dickens, writing somewhat earlier, creates Jenny Wren because there were indeed many shops for making dolls and clothes, many run by women. Young girls led respectable lives making dolls, either in family businesses a la Kestner, or the wood doll artists of Thuringia, or in groups sheltered by doll makers like Jumeau and Bru in France. Cloth dolls and handmade dolls of all types populated millions of households during the era Alcott wrote, even lower middle-class houses.
See, Wendy Lavitt's, "American Folk Dolls", and Coleman’s, "The Encyclopedia of Dolls",
Volumes I and II.