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From “Rag” Doll to Community Riches

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A small, 11” cloth doll might seem like an incongruous object for discussing the issues of the American Great Depression. Yet enduring the depression required ingenuity and a community’s collaborative effort – a story this doll tells.

Portia Sperry with Doll

After her husband lost his job with RCA in Camden, New Jersey, Portia Howe Sperry moved with her husband and four children to rural Indiana – a place they had only driven through on previous vacations. Sensing they could eke out a living in the countryside, the family rented a small shack without running water or electricity. Here Portia found a part time job in the Nashville House Inn’s gift shop selling handmade objects from the area. Hoping to generate more income for the family, the entrepreneurial Portia Sperry decided to design and market a doll based on native crafts and local skill. Having no experience in such an endeavor, Portia’s project took many months and lots of experimentation with the help of local artists and handy farmwives. With aplomb, Perry convinced the large Chicago department store, “Marshall Fields“, to carry the first doll (called Abigail) and the Quaker Oats Company to donate boxes to ship them in. Portia then organized local women to make the cloth doll bodies and craft the clothes.

Portia Sperry Doll, Gift of Mary M. Seubert

The Abigail doll was a big marketing success at Marshall Fields, putting $2,000 in the hands of Browne County, Indiana, women during the 1932 Christmas season. A year later, Sperry created the Nancy Hanks doll named after Abraham Lincoln’s mother. That too did well. By 1934 the inn’s little gift shop was on the map. While touring the Midwest to encourage a depressed rural populace, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the gift shop, touted the cooperative nature of the crafts activities as a national self-help model, and purchased a Nancy Hanks doll (though not the one featured on this blog).

So the community prospered, but how did Portia and her husband Ralph fare? The story of Portia’s entrepreneurial efforts spread. She gave talks to local groups, wrote an article on her families’ depression experiences for the 1934 Woman’s Home Companion, and in 1938 published a popular children’s book entitled Abigail. In 1934, the Wurlitzer Piano Company offered Ralph a job designing their new upright spinet piano. The little craft shop remained in family hands until 1984.[1]

It is often difficult to convey peoples’ issues of economic challenge and dislocation through artifacts. If you have your foreclosure sign, pink slips, or other objects related to the recent economic downturn, and are willing to share your story, we would be pleased to learn about them!

[1] Barbara J. Dirks, “Doing It Together,” _Traces_, Fall 2001.

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    About the Author

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    Nancy DavisNancy Davis is a curator in the Division of Home and Community Life at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Learn more about the exhibition team.View all posts by Nancy Davis

    • http://www.doll-clothes.com/15-and-under-18-inch-doll-clothes.html Chris Jeffery

      Who could have guessed that a small doll could change a lot of people’s lives? And we’re talking about a time when people were desperate for jobs. That’s a milestone in toys – Ms. Perry’s ingenuity is etched on the smile on the doll’s lips. And it served as more than just a plaything.

    • Rachael Hall

      It is amazing and inspiring that a plaything could gain such popularity during such economic hardship & bring relief to the makers of the toy as well as joy to the children playing with it. It is also a fine example of “yankee ingenuity” that Americans are so known for. Thise is the sort of story that is wonderful to share in the classroom, personal stories that capture my students’ imaginations & help them to identify with people of the past.

      • Davisne

        Dear Ms. Hall – I am so pleased that you might share this story in the classroom!  I will be talking about this same doll in a program called “Let’s Do History” for teachers.  I hope they will find it as compelling as you did.  Thanks so much for responding!  Do continue to check our site for there will continue to be ideas and objects that you might be able to use in your classroom.  Nancy Davis