Tudor dolls, lack of

I had four dolls when I was a little girl: Prudence (knitted by my aunt), Baby (my favourite), Rosemary, who came in a box dressed as a bride for my fifth Christmas and was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and Susan.  I loved them all and played with them for an embarrassingly long time (ironic really, as I have not exactly turned out to be the maternal type).  My mother would make exquisite little outfits for them, rosebud printed nightdresses or twin sets with pearl buttons for them to wear, all complete with knitted vest and pants, an act of devotion that I suspect I didn’t appreciate at the time, but do now.  At one point I decided I was too old to play with dolls and put them away, but missed them so much I had to get them out again. Now they live in a box in my attic, but I got them out for a photoshoot and was swept away by a pang of nostalgia.  Here they are, all having bad hair days, but what can I expect after fifty years in a box?  Notice how all their eyes are missing, poked out by my brothers.  Only Rosemary’s are intact, presumably because she had the last visit to the doll’s hospital.


Prudence, Baby, Rosemary and Susan

I’ve been thinking about them because I wanted dolls to be a motif in the book I am writing now.  But when I started to research the subject, it turned out that Tudor children didn’t have dolls, or not as we know them today. Dolls have only been known as such since the 18th century.

The most a child in Tudor England could hope for, it seems, was a carved wooden figure known as a Bartholmew baby after the great London fair at which they were traditionally sold.  These wooden toys sometimes had leather arms attached, but were otherwise very plain as you can see in this reconstruction.


To be honest, I was a bit miffed when I discovered this inconvenient fact.  If I can gender stereotype for a moment, I find it hard to believe that little girls in Tudor England didn’t play with dolls of some kind, even if they weren’t called dolls.  There are a number of examples of dolls in earlier periods, including this amazing Roman rag doll in the British Museum.  I wonder whose doll it was?


©Trustees of the British Museum.


Were there really no rag dolls sewn together in the 16th century?  Perhaps little girls then had plenty of real babies to look after and had no need to pretend?

I have had to face facts, though, and have given my character, Mary, a wooden baby, but I have had to adapt the rest of my plot to fit the facts – ggrrr.  The perils of research.


12 Responses

  1. Tess Wysocki says:

    How frustrating that must have been! I wonder if children had any kind of childhood in that era. It seems they started working at such a young age.

    • Oh, I’m sure they had games, Tess. We know they had marbles, spinning tops, hoops and so on, and they played a lot of the games that children still play today – hide and seek, tag, and blind man’s bluff (then called hoodman blind). But you’re right, they did start work early and when you see pictures of those poor little noble and royal children in miniature adult clothes, you wonder how they ever managed to run around at all.

      • Wanda Bowring says:

        The prospect of a child surviving their childhood was very very slim. Even for Royals. Life was incredible harsh. Cloth dolls were made though, but of course, hardly survived for today’s evidence. The example of the Roman cloth doll is an excellent one.

  2. Fabulous post, Pamela, and an interesting subject..

    I am sure some children made “dolls” in Tudor times. I remember being away from home (and therefore away from my toys) and shaping an old coat into a doll shape to cuddle, and I recall making a mouse out of string (winding it into a mouse shape and leaving one end for a tail). The imagination can work wonders and a home-made toy can be just a precious as an expensive, life-like one!

    • That’s my feeling too, Melinda, but of course, those ephemeral objects don’t last so we don’t have any evidence for them … although that Roman doll seems to have lasted all right! I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old woman, but I hope children nowadays still use their imagination the way you did – I do worry about them having everything created for them in perfect detail on a computer screen – but maybe that’s what the Tudor owners of Bartholomew babes would have said about the plastic dolls I loved so much!

  3. Glynis Hughs says:

    If you look on the Tudor Tailor’s website – you will find a very nice tudor doll. It also features in their book “The Tudor Child”

    • Thanks for this, Glynis. I didn’t know about the Tudor Tailor website, although I love their book and use it often – and I have now been able to order The Tudor Child too! Interesting that they mention the portrait of the child holding a doll – although I have now constructed my entire story around a wooden Bartholomew Baby!

  4. Ali Browning says:

    I have dolls just like those, some are “Roddy” dolls, I was a child in the 60s and 70s. I also made wooden egg cups into baby dolls so maybe because people were poor then they used maybe corn cobs or bits of wood and played pretend, I also imagine during the reformation and times when the Puritans held sway doll play would be frowned upon maybe as they would be seen as graven images.

    • That’s an interesting point about a change in attitude, Ali. And I’m sure you’re right that children would have been able to use their imaginations as they have always done when they play.

    • Wanda Bowring says:

      Very true about the Puritans. They hated all toys and crashed the annual Batholomew Fair outside the Priory bellowing as much. The wooden carved “dolls” (they weren’t called that yet) looked very similar to the Queen Anne wooden dolls of later centuries, but without legs. Far nicer than the example shown here.
      Usually beautifully dressed or dressed in the style of the school attended. Royalty, of course, would have had beautifully dressed wooden carved and painted dolls. Carved, gesso and painted. Mohair wigs and gowned. There are examples.

      • Interesting – thanks, Wanda (and apologies for the fact that I have only just seen your comments). It was a surprise to me to find that ‘doll’ was a relatively recent term, as you say – until I started to look at the subject, it had never occurred to me that little girls hadn’t always had dolls!

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