RSS Feed

Tag Archives: O. Henry

Dolls and Girls in this Holiday Season: In the 1930s and 40s and Today

My daughter, Sarah, is 17, but we still receive the American Girl doll catalogue.  Imagine my shock when I saw that Molly McIntire and her English friend, Emily Bennett, were to be “archived.”  I guess that means they’ll be shelved for now.  I’ve always had a fondness for Molly since her story is set in 1944 and her home front hi-jinks appealed to me.  Yes, yes, I know how commercial it all is, but there’s a part of me that is glad girls associate historical fictional girls from the past with narrative.

Molly McIntire and Emily Bennett, her English friend escaping the London Blitz.

Molly McIntire and Emily Bennett, her English friend escaping the London Blitz.

I first encountered the American Girl doll phenomenon through two girls we knew when Sarah was very little, Jenny and Molly Odintz.  I think they had a doll or two, though they giggled over the unlikely ability of Addy, the  escaped slave, to own $30 accessories!  And they dearly wanted a Jewish doll which American Girl finally provided.

Sarah got some American Girl dolls from Joan, her grandma–Kit Kittredge, the 1930s doll, and Samantha, a girl from a “bright Victorian beauty.”  Sarah was never that much into them, but they still sit atop her bookcase.  She even has that English girl who has fled the Blitz, Emily Bennett!

The Four Fates: Emily, Kit, a doll from Poland, and Samantha.  A little stuffed bug (representing the disease 'mono') sits in front.

The Four Fates, as my husband, Jim, likes to call them: Emily, Kit, a doll from Poland, and Samantha. A little stuffed bug (representing the disease ‘mono’) sits in front.

Dolls are wonderful beings, though I think Sarah’s and my interest in American Girl dolls dissipated when we visited the actual American Girl doll store in New York City a number of years ago.  The scary intensity of the buyers with their brutal focus on consumption turned us off, though we had many a giggle over it!

Dolls are important for girls to learn to express themselves.  I often acted out stories with my dolls and stuffed animals.  In 3rd grade, my teacher let me perform little plays for my classmates using my stuffed animals and troll dolls.  I also had Barbies, though Barbies were for older girls in those days, while little girls receive the physically impossible plastic siren today.

Joan writes about wanting a doll when she is almost fifteen.

Dy-Dee Doll advertisement.

Dy-Dee Doll advertisement.

Wednesday, December 8, 1937

. . . Last week Mrs. Topping read my “Lonesome Pine” composition to the class and said it was writing at its best. Ah! Then she asked the class if they didn’t feel something good in it—so they said “no,” but Mrs. T. appreciates me—I hope. . . .

Last Saturday I went downtown and saw Santa Claus, etc. They’ve got the cutest dolls there—I want one for Xmas even if I am almost fifteen—but I want a set of O. Henry,[1] too—even more. Honestly, I’m practically a little girl when it comes to Xmas displays. I’ll stand for an hour and watch someone demonstrate “DyDee” dolls or something.


[1] An American short story writer. His most famous story is “The Gift of the Magi.”

Dy-Dee Doll c. 1934.

Dy-Dee Doll c. 1934.

A few months later, a wonderful gift arrives for her.

Age 15, Thursday, April 21, 1938

. . . Last week Vera and I went to Mary’s house and I fell in love with her ragdoll, and when the club met there Friday, I found a doll there with a card saying “To Joan Whalen [sic]—my name is Penelope and I am a platinum blonde” and Mary really had made one for me—I think that was nice of her.

Then a couple of months later…

Wednesday, June 15, 1938

. . . One girl had a Dionne quintuplet[1] doll in art and I had the best time playing with it. Everyone was teasing me about second childhood. Have I passed yet from my first? . .


[1] Canadian quintuplets born in 1934.

Dionne Quintuplet Dolls

Dionne Quintuplet Dolls

Later on that year, Joan expresses something I think all girls with dolls can empathize with.

Sunday, October 30, 1938

I wish someone wanted me. Penelope [my doll] loves me and Tristan [my plant]. Good night.

Joan even writes a poem to her doll when she is 15.

June 26, 1938                                                                                                

                                    To Penelope

                I have slept many times with you

               — How many times I have slept with you —

               Cheek to cheek and heart to heart

               My arm flung about you, rejoicing and proud

               In my possession of you.

               I have awakened at night with a great horror

               And, seeing your ever-open eye, have lain down

               Comforted in your nearness.

               But now I have grown up.  I am too old, they say

               For pleasures with you,

               My little rag doll.

I hope each girl in the world may have or receive a doll–her dearest friend.

How can Joan be so literate–and literary?

At a book reading at BookWoman in Austin, Texas, dear friends and colleagues came and listened to my reading of sections of Home Front Girl:  A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America.  They had wonderful questions and suggestions–even that I should make an audio recording of it, which I would love to do!

Reading Home Front Girl to kindred spirits at BookWoman

One person commented on how literate Joan was.  Some might ask how it could be true–that such a young girl was so literate.  But Joan came from a literate family.  Her parents, though working class, loved to read and discuss literature–fiction and poetry.  They even met at a night school called The Lewis Institute, now part of Illinois Institute of Technology.  Joan grew up reading Kipling, Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, O. Henry, and Christopher Morley, the novelist.  Their writings aren’t particularly “easy”–but if you don’t have easier things to read, you just read what you have and assume it’s expected of you to master such writings.

Joan falls in love with A.E. Housman at the age of 14.  As she writes, Wednesday June 16, 1937

If anybody had told me a year ago that I’d be taking poetry from the library and reading it not only willingly but joyously (!), I would have thought whoever it was crazy!  However, it’s true.  I got out “A Shropshire Lad” [by A.E. Housman] and am really liking it.  I never thought it in me.  I also got out Pope’s translation of the Iliad, but it looks forbidding so I haven’t started yet.  However, I’m still human as I also have (on my new “adult” card, of course) “The Garden Murder Case”[i] and a Christopher Morley book[ii].  So fear not for my mind.  But I do like poetry.  It’s quite surprising really.  I haven’t quite recovered from it yet.

Here is Joan reciting A.E. Housman to herself in the park.

Joan reciting poetry to herself under the forsythia


[i] By S. S. Van Dine; published in 1935.

[ii] Most famous for his 1939 book, Kitty Foyle.

%d bloggers like this: