Legend has it that Smith's new endeavor was inspired by a neighbor's broken doll; when asked to fix the injured toy, Smith decided instead to create an even better version. While this story may be apocryphal, we do know that one of Smith's motivations was to create a doll that would not break. Because most popular contemporary dolls were made of bisque, a form of porcelain, they were quite fragile and more suited to show than play. Smith set out to make dolls more durable, and she considered the needs of active children in the process of creating what would come to be known as the Alabama Indestructible Doll.
Touted as the "Alabama Indestructible Doll," Ella Smith's creations now survive primarily in museums and private collections.
The early dolls had soft curls painted with yellow ochre oil paint, giving each a unique appearance. Adding to each doll's individuality are the feet, for which Smith used one of two designs-the dolls either had painted on shoes, or they were shoeless with stitched toes, sometimes with painted pale pink toenails.
At the height of production, Smith's sales catalogue displayed a wide variety of dolls. They ranged from twelve inches to thirty-six inches, had a variety of clothing, and even came in different races. Smith's Negro Mammy doll may strike twenty-first century readers as perpetuating a racial stereotype, but for the turn of the twentieth century, its creation was a radical step reflecting Smith's determination to make dolls that resembled their owners. She made several versions of a black doll, and copies of this doll have been pictured as one of fifteen American Dolls in a U.S. Postal Service stamp set.
Rivaling Smith's concern for children was her shrewd business acumen. Her catalogue produces a sense of urgency by reminding buyers that they should order early for Christmas delivery, so that Little Mothers could get their dolls on time. Furthermore, the catalog emphatically asserts that "[Smith's] girls refuse to handle and repair old dolls on account of danger from contagious diseases." While the risk of contagion was significant, the insistence that customers replace their old dolls instead of repairing them also helped sales. In a more pointed move, Smith appealed to the philanthropic spirits of buyers, admonishing them to "help the poor widow women and orphan girls who are struggling now so hard to make a living" by purchasing these dolls made "right here in America, right here in Alabama."
Estimates suggest that Smith's business produced eight thousand dolls per year.
Despite its abrupt end, Smith's career remains influential, and early dolls painted by Smith herself have been rumored to sell for as much as twenty thousand dollars this is hard to verify, as so few of the dolls actually come on the market, but Smith's dolls have sold at such reputable auction houses as Christie's in London. The original dolls still appear in antique shows and shops, and citizens report that the Roanoke city dump has been successfully scavenged more than once, with lucky searchers finding Ella Smith Dolls whose worth was apparently unrecognized by their previous owners.
The East Alabama Museum in Opelika and the Roanoke Historical Society museum both have dolls on display, but the best place to see the variety and character of these dolls can be found in collector Jacque Schafer's recently self-published scrapbook, Ella Smith and Alabama Dolls. A member of several doll societies, Jacque has documented all the information a collector would need to identify an authentic Ella Smith Doll, and there are color photos showing the delicate features, hair, and shoes that Smith painted on each doll. These exquisite details may be the most endearing feature of these treasured dolls from Alabama, and their subtle differences continue to display Smith's commitment to the uniqueness of each individual.
This feature was previously published in Issue 84, Spring 2007.
About the Author
Susan Warley Hales is an artist and writer living in Mobile, Alabama. She holds a B.F.A. in Studio Art and will receive her M.A. in Creative Writing in June 2007 from the University of South Alabama, where she currently works at the University Library.