Dear Helaine and Joe:
I have a 17-inch-tall sawdust ballerina. She looks like she is made of wood with a body full of sawdust. Do you have any idea about when this doll was made?
This doll is just a tad small, but we believe it is what is called a “boudoir doll.” Starting about 1915, and with a popularity reaching into the 1940s, these dolls were designed to decorate the bed in milady’s bedchamber.
Usually boudoir dolls are tall and slender with long arms and legs, which are most often decorated with essentially painted on high heel shoes. Many of these dolls are 24 inches or taller, but after doing some research, we did find some as short as 15 and 16 inches.
The arms, legs and head of the example belonging to T.M. appear to be made from a material called “composition,” and not wood. Composition is a mixture of such things as flour, wood pulp, rags, glue and sawdust, which produces a hard material that might be mistaken for wood.
Other boudoir dolls can be found with heads and bodies of cloth, ceramic or wax. They generally have painted features and wigs of mohair or silk floss (the example in today’s question appears to be silk floss). Bodies can be made from cloth or composition and the cloth examples are often filled with either sawdust or wood shavings.
The quality of boudoir dolls can be unexceptional, and examining the body of this example, it is easy to see that it was assembled in a slap-dash manner. The body looks like it is about to disintegrate and the face is painted with just a few quick strokes of red for the lips, two dots of red for the nostrils, black and brown for the eyes with a red dot in the corner for visual enhancement.
These observations are not meant to be critical — it is just the normal way most of these dolls were made. The exception to this is the boudoir dolls made by Lenci of Turin, Italy (founded in 1918 by Enrico and Elenadi Scavini). Their beautifully made felt boudoir dolls have sold for $1,000 and more.
Collectors also are willing to pay a little more for boudoir dolls that have glass eyes, have African-American coloration or are depicted smoking a cigarette. Unfortunately, T.M.’s doll fits none of these special categories. Her example was probably made in France sometime in the mid 1920s to late '30s, and although T.M. calls her a ballerina, she looks more like a Spanish dancer to us.
Clothing would help this part of the identification — a tutu always tells the tale, but this doll is completely nude. This also hurts the value. In order for boudoir dolls (or any other dolls for that matter) to have their full value they must have their original clothes because often times the costume is the most charming part of these boudoir dolls. Value this doll in the $50 to $75 range at retail if the original clothes are missing, but if the clothes are available and they are in decent condition, that price goes up 50 percent.