Few toys have been as ubiquitous over time as the doll, and few girls grow up without fond memories of at least one special one. Doll collectors seek to recreate that sense of wonder from childhood. But dolls can also have a place in appreciating another culture.
While there have been clay figures found from the pre Hispanic period, there is no evidence that these “dolls” were playthings instead of for other purposes
That is not to say that there were no toys prior to the arrival of the Spanish, but they may have been made with other, far-less-durable material.
The first evidence of dolls in the more modern sense of the word came about in the colonial period. These were most likely rag dolls, made with bits and pieces from items that were no longer fit for their original purpose.
Any dolls other than the most crudely made were limited to upper class families, Spanish or criollo young girls. These girls were also taught sewing and embroidery skills that could be used in the making and decorating of dolls and their clothing. The wealthiest girls would get rag dolls with porcelain heads imported from Europe. The popularity of these dolls even into the early 20th century spawned a kind of knock off, which has since evolved into its own craft form called Lupitas or Celaya dolls made from paper mache.
However, the introduction of industrially-made cloth and its steady drop in cost made rag dolls more affordable and within the reach of more families. However, the making of these rag dolls were almost exclusively done in families and for personal use. The making of crafts in Mexico has been changing since the mid 20th century primarily because of the tourism industry. The making of rag and other dolls has lagged behind other traditions in being adapted for the tourist market.
The best known exception to this is the “Maria” dolls, which are nearly ubiquitious in tourist markets all around Mexico. Although their origin is somewhat disputed, they are likely from southeast Querétaro state. The town of Amealco and its Otomi population lay claim to them. These dolls have been commercialized for decades and on several occasions were even factory-made. But today most are make individuals and coopertatives of women. They do have a mass- produced look to them, which comes from the fact that when factories failed, artisans purchased patterns and sometimes equipment. It is interesting to note that there is a more traditional but almost entirely unknown type of rag doll from the same area. Instead of stuffing, the doll’s body is formed by rolling and bending manta (a heavy muslin) cloth, they tying it and dressing it.
Amealco and the city of Queretaro are home to two interesting doll museums/collections. Amealco’s doll museum pays homage to the local version, but also contains from other parts of the country as well, as most of the collection comes from entrants from the municipality’s annual doll exhibition and competition. While not limited to rag dolls, these do dominate, as they do at the Centro de Desarrollo Artesanal Indígena in the state capital. This museum is dedicated to the state’s indigenous handcrafts but has a good overview of modern Mexican rag doll making.
Dolls from the Amealco and Queretaro museums.
In recent years, the popularity of the making of rag dolls in some kind of indigenous or traditional dress has been growing among craftspeople, especially indigenous ones. These dolls offer a way to not only make money but also show the value of cultural heritage images. Indeed the true value of these dolls is in the dress, rather than in the doll proper.
The dolls follow European designs for the most part although more than a few makers have opted for darker colored cloth that more closely aligns with indigenous skin colors. With few exceptions, these dolls depict women, whose traditional dress is generally more colorful and attracts more attention.
Doll makers are often already involved in the making of texiles or traditional clothing to begin with, and start making the dolls as a sideline. The dolls also provide a way to use leftover cloth and other materials. But if events such as the biannual Expo de los Pueblos Indígenas, an important show of Mexican indigenous businesses, is any indication, they are a growing sector of Mexican handcrafts. Last November’s edition features dolls in ethnic dress from Baja California, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Michoacan, Mexico City, Oaxaca and Chiapas.
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter