Friday, April 5, 2013

This Vintage Felt Soldier Doll Has Uniform Appeal

There's not really any uniform answers to Steiff identification mysteries, especially when it comes to turn of last century, military inspired felt dolls.  Take a look at this note from Margaret, who asks about one of her recent finds.  Over the course of several exchanges, she shares the following about a vintage soldier doll that in many ways resembles those made by Steiff.  She writes...

Hi Steiffgal,
I was very happy to come across your blog tonight. I am an antique bear collector who has many old bears and pull toys, velvet toys, felt toys and so on. I hope you won't mind if I pick your brain. With your experience, you can probably give me some good information, or at least good speculation, about an item I purchased today at an antique store.  

I have gone through my Steiff Sortiment and cannot find a match to this guy.  He seems closest to "Young Brigade" to me, p. 445, but he is not a perfect match.  He is obviously old, as old as my other Steiff dolls circa 1914.  He stands a hair more than 13" tall. He has a couple of tiny moth holes. He is jointed. He does not have a mohair wig, he has hair that is painted on.  Instead of shoe button eyes or blue glass eyes, his eyes are hand made glass humanized brown eyes, very tiny and pretty and realistic looking. He has a little mustache. He has two proper little felt ears and a little nose. He has a sweet expression.  The seam that goes up his face stops at the top of his nose and re-starts at his hairline.  And his hands are dark felt, obviously meant to look like he is wearing gloves.

The doll is wearing a uniform, maybe a field coat, made of brownish gray wool. It has little brass buttons on it with a tiny insignia that looks like a pineapple shape. His coat has a little light brown or orange-ish square sewn onto each end of his collar; the coat is fairly long and buttons hold it open at the bottom. It is finely and expertly sewn and kind of gathered in the back. The sleeves have cuffs. The front of the coat has pockets on the chest. The right shoulder has a bit of the same fabric pinned to the shoulder, as if something else might have been there at some time.

His pants are made of the same wool fabric as his coat and they tuck into the top of his black leather boots. They kind of balloon a little bit (they are not a tight fit). The black boots are leather, the uppers are two pieces, there are eyelets and laces, these boots are very intricately and accurately done. They are as good as human boots, just miniature.
Is he Steiff, but a variation of the dolls pictured in the Sortiment, so he won't match up perfectly? Is it possible someone else made him? Who is my guy?

Thank you for any ideas you can provide. 

From one Steiff aficionado to another,

Let's follow marching orders and get right down to business in terms of this dolls.  Yes, in many ways, he does share some similar characteristics to Steiff's wide range of soldier and military themed dolls from the approximately 1910 through 1920 time frame. These include his materials, general proportions, detailed clothing, and body construction.  However, there are three key areas that clearly suggest that he was made by a manufacturer other than Steiff.  These are his:
  • Clothing and footwear style and details
  • Facial construction
  • Unusual eyes shape
If it were just one of these things, then maybe it could be an exception.  But all three suggest the alternative. 
Steiff's Infantryman from 1914 though 1921
Let's keep things somewhat orderly by starting with the dolls attire.  Typically, Steiff's military men have very fitted, detailed uniforms that have a "crispness" to them.  The clothing in general does not feature "puffy" or "gathered" details.  Steiff's doll jackets and pants are angular and often have edging and other contrasting stitched details, and simple, plain buttons.  The soldier doll pictured to the left is a good example of this; for more information on him please click hereThe "pineapple" buttons on Margaret's doll are much, much more detailed than the buttons on Steiff's usual military dolls, and his clothing appears too "informal" to have been made by Steiff.  

Center Seam Face
Face it, Margaret's doll's facial construction is also interesting - but not typical to Steiff.  Steiff is known for both their center seamed faces (which can run either horizontally or vertically) and their seamless pressed felt faces.  The company worked for over two decades to perfect their pressed felt face techniques, and during that time produced several hybrid prototypes that never went to market.  The pressed felt faced dolls do indeed have almond shaped eyes, but they are painted
Pressed Felt Face
or glass eyes embedded into the facial mask - not sewn on the face as it appears in Margaret's case.  It is possible, although not terribly probable, that the face on Margaret's doll is one of those "half and half" experiments with only a partial facial seam.  Steiffgal sees these these occasionally at auction - but they are never noted as Steiff, just as early European felt faced dolls... and they never have a Steiff buttons in their ear, suggesting that they were not meant to leave the factory.  

Early Scotty, delightful photo from
Eye veh... and now his handsome eyes.  Collectors probably recognize the soldier doll's distinctively shaped peepers as similar to those seen on Steiff's early Scotties, Selyhams, and Skye Terriers starting in the 1930's.  Steiffgal thinks that Margaret's doll is older than that - probably no later than the early 1920's.  Steiffgal also has never seen soldier's distinctive, 3D almond shaped eyes on any Steiff doll either in person, in the Steiff archives, or in pictures.  Early Steiff eyes used on felt dolls were round black shoe buttons, while later ones were round glass pupil. According to Steiffgal's colleague Lauren Mikalov, a doll expert and columnist for Dolls Magazine, many companies - including Lenci, Chad Valley, and Norah Wellings - used more humanized glass shaped eyes on their early felt dolls.  So there is history and precedent for this design element... but just not with Steiff.     

So just who is this mysterious military man?  Without labels, it's almost impossible to tell... and like a good soldier, this one's keeping state secrets.  

Steiffgal hopes this discussion on early felt dolls has met with uniform appeal.

Have a question about one of your Steiff treasures? Let's talk! Click here to learn more.  

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