Dolls as Data: Unpacking Great Depression-Era Constructions of Race and Nationhood in Work Projects Administration Dolls

Allison Robinson, University of Chicago

In 1938, the Milwaukee Handicraft Project unveiled its latest product – a doll that combined handcrafted molding for the face with hand and machine stitching for the body and clothing. It was one of many “handicraft” objects produced by this Work Projects Administration program meant to uplift the general public and raise the national taste in everyday goods from 1935 to 1942. The dolls were enormously popular. A workforce of eight hundred women annually made tens of thousands of dolls for children and tax-supported institutions across the country. American teachers as far as North Africa and India ordered dolls to use in their classrooms. Eleanor Roosevelt visited the project, wrote about her experience in her “My Day” column, and even took home a pair of dolls for herself. This paper argues that dolls serve as data on the Americanization movement repackaged for children during Great Depression. These dolls serve as insight into toys as political data. The program made two categories of dolls – “American” and “Foreign.” American dolls included both white “American” and “Negro American” options. “Foreign” dolls featured a selection of ethnic groups from Eastern and Southern Europe. Through different combinations of skin color, hair texture, and clothing, the program created a narrative of visualized similarities and differences between Americans and European ethnic groups. The Milwaukee Handicraft Project literally wove ideologies about racial and cultural differences between whites, blacks, and non-American ethnicities into its products.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 197. Playing with Data: Dolls, Toys, and Theme Parks