Dolls have evolved over the centuries from religious symbols or idols in ceremonies to playthings by children, and are now also highly-prized collectibles. Doll collecting has become the second largest adult hobby in the United States, and many collectibles are made of plastic. One popular doll company, Alexander Doll Company, sells more than 500,000 dolls every year to both children and collectors.
Some of the earliest dolls date from around 2000 b.c. and were produced in Egypt. Made of wood into a simple paddle shape, these dolls were probably used in fertility rites. Other miniature figures were used in tombs. Wooden and clay dolls were also made by the early Greeks. Many of these ancient dolls were believed to have magical powers.
Doll-making was also an industry in the Roman era, and materials included wood, cloth, bone, and terra cotta. During this period, dolls were dedicated at puberty to the gods of Mercury, Jupiter, and Diana. Dolls were also often buried with their owners, especially since many died young. Other early cultures—including those found in India, Japan, and North America—used dolls to teach children their traditions. Materials included cloth, clay, buckskin, and corn husks. Dolls made from corn were often used in harvest celebrations.
As civilizations evolved, so did the doll, which became much more elaborate for those who could afford it. Wealthy children in Europe were given dolls of wax, wood, and composition during the late Medieval period (fourteenth century) and doll making became a commercial entity. Such dolls retained their popularity until the end of the nineteenth century. By the fifteenth century, Germany had established itself as an important center of doll-making, with France following suit. The making of luxury dolls continued into the sixteenth century with Paris an important center. Also during this period, the number of available doll accessories increased.
The next century continued to see dolls being played by both ordinary children and those born into nobility. Wax and wood were still popular, and papier mache was becoming more common. The doll by the end of this century became an accepted article of commerce, even as far as the colonies of America. American settlers also began to produce dolls of their own, usually made from wood.
Other materials became popular during the eighteenth century. Plaster of paris, which was easy to cast, was used despite it being so fragile. In Germany, hard paste porcelain was first made and was subsequently used to make heads. A common tradition during this period was for ladies to have wax dolls made as portraits of themselves and dressed in fashionable clothes. Another method of studying and examining costume that became popular was the use of paper figures. Paper was cheap and readily available; dresses were painted to fit the figure. Flat paper or card dolls were sold in sheet form in Europe at the end of the century.
During the nineteenth century, doll heads and dolls made of china were introduced and doll makers began looking for an unbreakable substance. Gutta percha, a rubber like substance from Mayala, came into regular use around 1840 in Europe. When the American firm Goodyear Rubber Company invented the vulcanizing process for hard rubber in 1851, this material was adapted by many doll makers in the United States and was still being used a hundred years later. Metal and celluloid were two other materials that were also used during this time in various countries.
Composition was still popular during the early twentieth century, and it was not until several years after World War II that the first true plastic doll was made in East Germany. Since then, plastic dolls abound in every toy store, with the most popular one named Barbie (with annual retail sales of almost $1 billion). Since 1959, more than one billion Barbie dolls and members of her family have been sold in more than 140 countries around the world. Every second, two Barbie dolls are sold somewhere in the world.
Today, dolls of all materials represent a market valued at over $2 billion in shipments of the $15+ billion U.S. toy industry. This represents a retail market of approximately $23 billion, a third of the global toy market.
Many toy designers utilize information from various sources, including parents, psychologists, educators, and other child-development specialists. This background provides valuable clues as to what consumers are looking for when they purchase toys, how children learn through play, and when youngsters are physically and cognitively ready for certain types of toys. Toys are also frequently tested by the children themselves in focus groups or at home to determine durability, age-appropriateness, play patterns, and marketability. Some toy manufacturers maintain in-house, year-round child care facilities for this purpose, while others establish relationships with universities and other research sites. A detailed evaluation of a product's safety is made upon completion of the very first prototype and updated as the toy nears production.
Doll manufacturers usually design a doll from the original concept to the finished product, which includes packaging and clothes. First, a simple sketch or drawing is made, followed by a color illustration. Next, a model is sculptured from wax. Once the design is approved, a master mold is made that is used to manufacture production molds.
Most plastic dolls are made from vinyl, otherwise known as polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Major resin producers supply PVC compounds, which is the world's second largest selling thermoplastic behind polyethylene. The basic building block of PVC is vinyl chloride, which is converted to PVC by a suspension process. All PVC must be compounded prior to use. Rigid compounds consist mostly of resin (85-90%), whereas flexible PVC contains 40-60% resin. Other additives include plasticizers, stabilizers, processing aids, lubricants, pigments, and fillers.
Some doll bodies are also made of polyethylene—a derivative of ethylene and a colorless, flammable gas. This gas is subjected to elevated temperatures and pressures in the presence of a catalyst, which converts the gas into a polymer. Other raw materials used in doll making include various paints to make facial features, nylon for the hair, and cloth and thread for the outfits.
Two major plastic forming processes are used to make doll body parts. The heads and limbs are made by a process called rotational molding. Rotational molding is used for producing hollow, seamless products of all sizes and shapes with uniform wall thickness. Blow molding is sometimes used to make the torso if cost is an issue since it is a faster, more economical method.
Raw material preparation
- 1 A separate compounding operation is required to convert the form of a resin, while also introducing any additives, into one suitable for the molding processes. Usually this step is done at the plastic manufacturer, though sometimes it is performed by the doll manufacturer if a special formulation is required.
- 2 During rotational molding, the mold cavities are first filled with a predetermined amount of the compound, in liquid form. Each metal mold consists of multiple cavities and the quantity depends on the size of doll. For instance, as many as 60 heads can be made at once. After the molds are closed, they are placed in a heated oven and rotated biaxially. During the heating cycle, the resin melts, fuses, and then densifies into the shape of the mold cavity.
- 3 Next, the molds are slowly cooled inside a chamber using air and water. Once cooled, the molds are removed from the chamber, opened, and the finished part is removed.
- 4 During blow molding, a hollow tube called a parison is first formed out of molten plastic by extrusion through a tubular reservoir. This tube is then placed between two halves of a steel mold and forced to assume the shape of the mold cavity by use of air pressure. The air pressure, ranging from 80-120 psi, is introduced through the inside of the tube, forcing the plastic against the surface of the mold.
- 5 After either molding process, the part is trimmed by hand to remove the flange.
Decorating the head
- 6 Before all the body parts are assembled to make the doll, the facial features and hair are applied. First, the eyes are inserted and then cheeks, lips, and sometimes lashes are spray painted using an air brushing method. This process can involve up to 15 steps.
- 7 If the hair isn't molded as part of the head, nylon is rooted into the vinyl using a special sewing machine that is operated by hand. The hair is then carefully trimmed, combed, and set. The head can now be attached to the body, along with the limbs.
Dressing and packaging
- 8 The next step is to dress the doll and trim any hanging threads. Any special labels or tags are attached before packaging. Most dolls are packaged in boxes by hand since they often must be posed. Each doll is given a final check before the box is covered. The boxes are then packed in shipping cartons.
In addition to spot checking the doll parts for defects during the molding process, plastic dolls must meet specific toy safety regulations first established by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). These include requirements and test criteria for paint and other similar surface-coating materials; sharp edges and points; small parts which could be swallowed or inhaled; use-and-abuse testing; hazardous substances; flammability and toxicity; among others. All raw materials are tested by the supplier and are shipped with property data sheets. Before the doll is packaged it is sent through a metal detector to make sure no metal contaminants are present.
The CPSC regulations are incorporated by reference in the toy industry's voluntary standard, ASTM F963, published by the American Society for Testing and Materials. ASTM F963 and federal regulations include more than 100 separate tests and design specifications to reduce or eliminate hazards that have the potential to cause injury under conditions of normal use or reasonably foreseeable abuse. These tests are conducted in-house or by independent testing laboratories.
Similar safety standards exist in Japan and Europe. An international standard is also under development that will serve as a set of requirements toward which all other countries can begin to harmonize.
Any excess material produced during the molding process is usually discarded, since it cannot be recycled back into the process. The composition of the virgin material would be affected that would change the quality and color of the doll. Sometimes, the waste material is recycled for other purposes.
The Internet and other computer technologies are having a profound effect on the toy industry and will continue to do so. Today, 40% of Americans aged nine to 14 have access to a computer and 22% actively surf the net, displacing some of the time that might otherwise be devoted to traditional play. Video games (now a market of almost $3 billion wholesale) and PC software also continue to gain in popularity, with double digit growth expected. However, the traditional toy market in the United States will grow by only a few percent and the basic doll market has shrunk from three to eight year olds to three- to five-year-olds. Overall, the toy and video game industry will grow by between 3-5%.
Consumers can expect to see many more examples of the use of technology in toys or to enhance the traditional version. For instance, the Barbie "Dress Designer" CD-ROM is an excellent example of creating new play dimensions for Barbie doll owners. As the cost of interactive microchip components continues to go down, more toy manufacturers will be able to incorporate interactive technology into toys at an affordable price for the consumer.
Though the basic doll market has become smaller, it is not expected to totally disappear. The demand is increasing for dolls that have more functions and are interactive. In the near future, plastic dolls will no doubt follow in the footsteps of the popular toy Furbie.
Where to Learn More
King, Eileen. The Collector's History of Dolls. St. Martin's Press Inc., 1978.
Vargas, Alexia. "A Pretty Population Explosion Sets Stage for Doll Wars." Wall Street Journal (December 16, 1997).
Uneeda Doll Co., Ltd. 200 Fifth Avenue, Ste. 556, New York, NY 10010. (212) 675-3313. Fax:(212)929-6494.