You'll see excerpts from my blog listed first, and then I will keep adding updates to my collection and experience at the bottom of the page.
During my first foray into the world of antiques, the doll that kept standing out from the crowd, both because her face is adorable and also because she seems to have been very popular in the late 1920s, was a character doll named "Baby Dimples." Baby Dimples was made by the Horsman company starting in 1928. Here is her irresistible face:
|Horsman "Baby Dimples," c. 1928|
Adding to the appeal of this baby is the fact that the Horsman company is still in business today, best known for their Urban Vita and Rini dolls.
One indication of how popular Baby Dimples was is that she's still pretty easy to find. On any given day, there are between 5 and 10 auctions on eBay for an original 1920s Baby Dimples. You can pay anywhere from $20 to $400 dollars for these dolls. The price is often a good indication of the condition of the doll, but not always.
My first thought was that I would buy a cheap Dimples doll (often these are listed as "for repair or parts") and fix her up on my own. Probably half of you are smacking your heads and groaning right now. Stupid, right? Well, all I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Another indication of how popular Baby Dimples was is that there are a lot of cheap imitations. It's like the Monster High phenomenon of the 1920s. So, before I bought a real Dimples doll, I plunked down $30 for this unmarked imitation of a 14" Baby Dimples:
|Unmarked 14" composition baby--not Dimples.|
I think he's really cute, and I wanted to start with a small doll so I could see what composition looks and feels like, and so I could practice a few "restoration" techniques.
He has blue painted tin eyes that close when he is laid on his back.
A few things make me think that this doll has had some restoration work done already. First of all, the edges of his eyes are ragged, and his painted upper lashes are gone. Maybe there aren't supposed to be upper lashes, but it's a bit suspicious. Also, his ears are practically gone, as is most of the molded detail in his hair. It looks like he'd been sanded or something. Whatever his history might be, he's very cute...and an excellent guinea pig.
|Wha...what do you mean, guinea pig??|
This doll had big flakes and cracks in the paint on his legs and arms, and the composition was visible in several areas. When I removed his socks to wash his outfit, chunks of paint came off with them. Something definitely needed to be done.
There's not a lot of information out there about how to preserve composition dolls. Professional doll restorers are reluctant to give up their secrets, and probably amateurs shouldn't be monkeying with these dolls anyway. This Old Doll suggests that any white glue would be a safe way to repair cracks in a composition doll. So...to avoid further flaking, I coated the doll's arms and legs with Modge Podge Hard Coat. I have read that this doesn't yellow over time as much as some other glues. Here's what the limbs looked like after their glue treatment:
To be clear, This Old Doll did not recommend slathering the limbs with glue. This probably removes all of the doll's resale value. I did this as a salvage procedure for an inexpensive doll in poor condition. That being said, I am happy with the results. The cracks are still prominent, and tell the story of this doll's age, but now I can redress him and move him around without losing any more of his paint.
Armed with this practice, I set out to find myself an actual Horsman Baby Dimples doll.
A third indication of how popular Baby Dimples was is that she comes in many different sizes and varieties. There is no comprehensive online resource describing these variations, so I was left to piece together available information and try to make a choice. There are at least four main sizes of this doll, 14 inch, 16 inch, 18 inch and 22 inch. Within these sizes, some of the dolls have bent legs and some have straight legs. There are a few hard plastic reproduction versions of Baby Dimples, too. These commemorative babies were made in 1985, 1990 and 1995.
I found my doll on Etsy for $60. I think I paid too much, but I avoided the competitive eBay environment. She is 18" long and has bent composition legs. She is not in her original outfit. I chose this doll because her head is in almost perfect condition, her face paint is beautiful and vibrant, and she has had no previous restoration work:
I am such a sucker for this baby's profile:
She has sleeping tin eyes:
I knew that this doll's limbs were in bad shape. The seller was incredibly helpful and provided lots of clear pictures. The finish on her legs is especially bad, with lots of cracked and lifting paint:
Her face is dirty, has faint crazing all over, and has a small crack in the chin:
Her blue tin eyes are very nicely painted and in great shape:
I was very curious about this baby's mouth. Her mouth is open and she has attached teeth (made out of painted tin??) and a mouth cavity with a felt tongue. Even in real life, it is hard to see the details of the mouth clearly:
I tried getting some extreme close-ups of her mouth and teeth:
With the flashlight, you can see the fuzzy pink felt tongue in there:
Baby Dimples has molded, painted hair. Notice how the detail in her hair and ears is much more elaborate than it was on that little 14" baby:
Here's a picture of her with my hand so you can see roughly how large her head is:
And here she is with my own (vintage!) Madame Alexander Victoria doll, who can wear newborn clothing:
Dimples' neck bears the traditional Horsman mark (E.I.H. Co. INC.). It stands for "Edward Imeson Horsman." You can check other composition doll marks on this nice website.
Dimples has a jointed canvass body with full composition arms and 3/4 composition legs. This doll's cloth body is in decent shape, with some light brown stains.
The paint on her arm is flaking pretty badly:
The finish on her legs is much thicker than it is on her arms, and so these cracks are more formidable:
|Those are Baby Dimples' original shoes and socks.|
You can see the sawdust composition under the warped cracks in the laquer:
The problem is, I was imagining just pushing those cracks back into place and gluing them down. In reality, the finish is so thick and hard, the warped edges of the cracks won't budge at all. The paint and laquer layer has the feel of very hard, stubborn plastic.
I held a hair dryer over the legs for a long time, trying to soften the finish so I could flatten the cracks. This worked to some degree, but nowhere near as well as I imagined it would. Alternating between the hair dryer and the Modge Podge, I did my best to flatten the cracks and glue them down. I held everything in place with cable ties and floral tape while the glue dried and the paint cooled. This process took all day. I see now why professional restoration is pricey. Here's the poor baby in surgery:
In the end, it didn't work very well. While I could glue the paint back to the arms with some success, the finish on the legs was too stubborn. Most of the larger leg cracks are still significantly lifted away from the doll's composition core.
All of the spaces are filled with glue, but I am skeptical about this as a long-term solution. It will probably just re-crack.
Looking back, I think the three viable options for this doll were to accept her limbs as they were, replace them, or to have them professionally restored.
Since I'm not willing to spend the money for a quality limb restoration right now, I am glad, at least, to have this baby's legs smoothed down and stabilized so that I can dress her and enjoy her face:
I'll share the other touch-up tricks I used on this doll--all of them gathered from various blogs and doll restoration sites across the internet. I cleaned the dirt away from her face by gently rubbing the worst areas with a Q-tip moistened with a drop of mineral oil. *Note: I have since learned that putting oil on composition dolls is a bad idea. Also, avoid water and water-based products with these dolls. I sprinkled her cloth body with talcum powder, rubbed the powder in with a toothbrush, left it for a while, and then vacuumed it away. I'm not sure this step did much good, but it did help a little bit with her musty smell. I washed all of her clothes in the sink and let them air dry. I have not found a way to fix up her little leather shoes.
Even though this knitted wool outfit is not original to the doll, someone clearly made it for her by hand, and I think it is sweet. Furthermore, it is a part of this doll's 85 year old history. Here she is, all cleaned up and ready for display:
The problem I faced at the end of this experience is that I figured out the best way to approach buying an antique composition doll after I had already spent all of my money doing it the wrong way. It probably won't surprise you to know that I was yearning to have one more crack at it. When another cute Dimples popped up on eBay for the right price ($32), I grabbed her, too.
This is a smaller 16" Baby Dimples with straight legs. She is in very good condition from head to toe. No salvage procedures necessary, thank goodness. She is wearing a vintage outfit that is clean and possibly original to this doll (although there are no tags).
I don't find her face quite as appealing as the larger Baby Dimples, but she is very sweet and is an easy-to-manage size:
She has lots of fine crazing and some paint loss around her mouth:
After some deliberation, I decided to touch up her mouth paint a tiny bit with acrylics. Apparently, I have a hard time just leaving things alone. I tried very hard to match the original color, and I didn't seal the paint with anything. It was a risk, but I think it improves the personality of her face:
Her cloth body has some spots, but her composition limbs are almost flawless. They have light crazing all over, but this doesn't bother me at all, in fact, I find it to be a charming souvenir of her age.
This doll's body is very lightweight. It doesn't have the same kind of firmly stuffed body as the 18" Baby Dimples. The limbs also feel very light and hollow in comparison to the 18" doll. There's little doubt that she's a composition baby, based on her mark and the crazing in her paint, but it's interesting how different this substance can be from one doll to the next.
Here is my composition baby collection:
|Unknown 14" baby, 16" Baby Dimples, 18" Baby Dimples.|
I have acquired a few more Baby Dimples dolls since that first post. My goal is to have one in each size, but that might be too ambitious. As I mentioned before, not only are there several sizes of Dimples, but each size seems to have a straight and a bent leg variation. Also, there might be more sizes than I originally suspected.
At the Doll and Toy Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, my Baby Dimples radar went off when I saw this doll perched on top of a tall cabinet. She was a bit hard to see:
From a distance, I assumed she was Horsman's Baby Dimples:
I don't think the doll in the museum is Baby Dimples, though. She's not labeled, although the proprietor hinted that she was Dimples. I'd need to see the back of her neck to be absolutely sure.
One clue that this isn't Dimples is that she has eyebrows. I am not aware of any Dimples dolls that have factory-painted eyebrows.
Also, her face doesn't look quite right to me. Her face and chunky hands look more like Effanbee's style to me.
|Effanbee's baby "Bubbles?"|
My guess is that she is about 26" tall, and I happen to have a 26" Dimples for comparison:
I just got this doll, and she arrived with some pretty bad facial crazing. I didn't mind this damage because I have been eager to try out a cleaning trick I learned that is supposed to reduce the appearance of crazing lines.
I mixed some acrylic paints to match the approximate skin tone of the doll. Then, I rubbed the paint into the the doll's face, working in very small patches and rubbing until the dirt was gone and the composition began to shine. Then, I switched to a clean rag and polished the wet paint completely off the surface. The trick is, a little bit of paint stays behind in the small cracks, lightening their color and making them less noticeable. I think it works beautifully, and hope it doesn't damage the doll.
In this picture, half of the face has been cleaned and half has not. See if you can tell which is which!
Here she is all cleaned and polished and back in her original outfit:
I also found the smallest size Dimples doll, a cute little 14" version. I purchased this doll on Etsy and she was in pretty bad shape. Her face has a lot of crazing and spotting. Here she is before (left) and after (right) her cleaning:
This doll's worst problem was that she had undisclosed repairs on her legs--really, really badly done undisclosed repairs. I should have sent the doll right back to the seller, but she's a hard doll to find.
I tried to strip away all of the horrible paint that had been added to the legs. It is not easy to strip paint off of these limbs without ruining the original finish, and it took me all day to get one leg clean. There were some bad cracks and ugly patching underneath all of that paint:
In this picture, the baby's right leg is still painted with the ugly orange-ish "repair" paint and the left leg is the original nice peachy-pink paint. Notice that the repair efforts didn't stop the cracking at all.
Despite my best efforts, I couldn't get the jaundiced paint off of the second leg, so I ended up removing all of the paint from both legs, stripping them down to the brown sawdust composition. The benefit of this drastic move is that I can show you what bare composition looks like:
|It looks like particle board.|
I repainted the legs with acrylic paint. This could be stripped or sanded off pretty easily. It's not a great fix, but the legs look much better than they did when I first saw the doll.
Anyway, here's this cutie re-united with an original 14" Dimples outfit:
Here are both dolls together so you can see their relative sizes:
6/ 26/2013 Update
My newest project is this tiny 12" Dimples that I won on eBay ($20). I wasn't even aware of this small size until I saw her auction:
She is in her original outfit (huge bonus) but she is in terrible condition. The dress is dirty and torn and all of her composition limbs are destroyed. She must have been stored next to a heat vent or something, because she has melted paint on her arms, legs and part of her face. It's really sad to see:
The right side of her face has a crinkled melted pattern, but fortunately, it's not as bad as the damage on the rest of her body:
This is why I bought her:
I mended some of the rips and holes with loose thread from the dress and then used fabric glue to seal the edges of a few other holes.
Then, I set out to remove all of the paint from this baby's limbs. I used a heat gun to soften the paint and then pulled and chipped the paint off. It took forever. Because the paint had already melted and re-cooled on this baby, it was stuck firmly to the underlying composition in many areas, forcing me to chip off a bit of wood with the paint. The legs lost quite a bit of their smooth surface layer:
Once the paint was removed, I sanded the limbs and then painted them with a white undercoat.
The undercoat revealed some remaining uneven areas, so I actually stripped this coat off and sanded her legs again.
I cleaned her face with acrylic paint (before on the left, after on the right):
And here she is:
Back in her tattered (but clean!) old clothes--the shoes still need some cleaning:
Here she is next to my 14" Dimples so you can see how tiny she is:
|12" Dimples and 14" Dimples.|
Small and smaller.
So, here are the sizes I am aware of so far (meaning I have seen pictures of them) the ones in bold I am positive about because I have seen them in real life. Please feel free to add information in the comments section!
12" bent, disc jointed legs
14" bent, disc jointed legs
14" straight, swing legs
16" straight, swing legs
16" bent, disc jointed legs
18" bent, disc jointed legs
18" straight, swing legs
18" straight, disc jointed toddler legs
22" straight, swing legs
22" bent, disc jointed legs
24" bent disc jointed legs
24" straight, swing legs
26" bent, disc jointed legs
26" straight, swing legs
Most recently, I saw a Baby Dimples on eBay with a full composition body! There's absolutely no information about this doll anywhere I can find, so she's either very rare, or she's been modified. Also, there's currently an African American Dimples on eBay. Again, I don't know if this is an authentic doll or a repaint. The brown tin eyes make me think she's could be real deal, but in the areas where her paint is worn, the underlying layer is peachy pink, which makes me wonder. Hm.