CARE OF COMPOSITION
Advice and Precautions for Buying Composition Dolls on
I have been restoring Composition dolls professionally since 1994. I am a very serious purist who believes that less is always better. I love these dolls and in hopes of maintaining and preserving their originality, I like to pass on my knowledge to collectors. I am writing this to inform -- and hopefully stop -- a very upsetting trend that has become prevalent on eBay.
I love to buy and sell dolls on eBay. I have been doing this for quite a few years, but I have noticed a trend in recent months that I feel is very damaging to the preservation of the Composition doll. This trend is due to the abundance of new "Miracle" Composition cleaners, paints, and kits that are readily available on the market that allow many to believe that, with the use of these items, they can turn any individual into a Doll Doctor or Doll Artist. This is so untrue! We now have far too many dolls selling on eBay with these concoctions smeared into every crack, crevice and paint flake. If not done correctly, the results are horrendous and a nuisance to reverse. I think I speak for most of us true Composition doll lovers when I say we would much rather buy a doll with their cracks and paint flaking -- and decide if we want them restored or left as is. To remove some of these applications is more time-consuming than if the doll were left with its prior damage.
I am writing this article because of a few recent purchases that I have made on eBay. Both dolls had work done that was not noted. The work was badly done and now the dolls will have to have this work reversed. I am quite sure all the true Doll Doctors and Doll Hospitals will agree with me in saying, "Please leave this work to the professionals who specialize in Composition Doll Restoration." If your car needs work, would you allow someone who just breezed through "How to Become an Automobile Mechanic in 3 Easy Steps", and has never touched or worked on an automobile in their life do your repairs? Of course you wouldn't! So do not believe that these products will turn the user into a Qualified Doll Doctor. Now please understand that a qualified Doll Doctor or Doll Hospital can utilize these products in the correct manner so the results are more pleasing when properly done. I, myself do not utilize any of the products on the market today for Composition repair or cleaning. So I am not condoning or criticizing the use of these products by Professional Doll Doctors and hospitals.
I restore and sell Composition dolls for people all over the country. I always try to talk my customers into doing as little restoration as possible. Most listen and thank me for helping them preserve their dolls. It also saves them money when less work has to be done. Of course there are also the basket cases which have to be completely restored. I have had many of these "basket cases" and often gain repeat customers. But less is always better. Don't clean a doll if it is not dirty, don't seal a doll that has a few craze lines, don't put oil in a dolls eyes or repaint their pupils. These are all processes that are not necessary and just take away the originality of the doll. Instead of sealing a crazed doll, just make sure that it is properly protected and the area the doll resides in is atmospherically correct. The crazing stops and the integrity of the doll remains. I have very rare composition dolls in my collection that are crazed and I have properly maintained them and they have not changed in years. For crazed doll eyes: replace them with new pupils; don't oil or repaint them. When this is done properly your dolls eyes will look like they did when they were new. There are always exceptions to some of these rules but we need to view these dolls like they are little works of art from the past. And Yes, sometimes they need to be refreshed, but ONLY when absolutely necessary and by a Qualified Proven Professional.
So what I trying to say is: if you are not a qualified Doll Doctor, then sell these Composition dolls with their cracks, flakes and problems. Some of us do not mind these things. Sometimes these are signs of how much someone loved them in the past.
The most frequently-asked question I get is:
"How can I clean my composition doll?"
Here's the answer...
Since beginning my website and sharing information on the care of composition dolls, I have been overwhelmed with your e-mails and questions about my opinions and the methods that I use and recommend.
I state in my care section that I do not believe composition dolls should be cleaned. I need to reiterate this: I do not believe an excellent composition doll should be cleaned. By excellent I mean good finish, even mild crazing. My opinion is to leave the finish alone. But many doll collectors would like to know how to clean them and with what. So I will share my cleaning methods with you. I always believe a good Doll Doctor/Hospital should be your first choice but I also realize that cost can be a factor for many.
First I would suggest trying this on a doll that is not in great condition. As you can see the doll that I used as my example is VERY crazed, even cracking and lifting in spots.
My cleaning agent is very simply -- acrylic paint!
Regular craft store paint: Folk Art, Apple any of these will do. Not only does the paint clean the doll, it helps conceal some crazing and gives the doll a nice luster. And what is great about acrylic paint is that it dries very rapidly so there is not much moisture on your doll.
The procedure is simple but has to be done correctly. First you will need a piece of material such as an old t-shirt (cut it up in small pieces). I use cotton hankies. You need to use something with a tight weave. Next, find a color that best matches your doll's skin tone. When purchasing the paint, buy a few different flesh tones. It does not have to be exact; although a bit lighter is preferable to darker. Take the smallest amount of paint on the material wrapped around the tip of your finger and begin to rub one small area at a time. Basically you will rub the paint onto the dolls finish and then buff it off. The trick is to not let the paint sit too long and dry. If the doll is very dirty you will need to go over areas more than once. One very important thing to remember when cleaning the face: be very careful around eyebrows, eyelashes and especially the eyeshadow on some dolls. The eyeshadow will buff off. I avoid touching the eyeshadow. When you are finished with the paint, buff the doll's finish rapidly with a clean piece of material and it will begin to shine. If all done properly you will be very pleased with the results. Just look at my doll example. This doll has deep crazing and the clean side looks great.
I suggest working on your "basket cases" first, but once you get the hang of this you will be amazed at what a little paint can do! This is why I do not use any of the Compo Crazes and the other "Miracle" Doll Cleaning products on the market today. Acrylic Paint produces the same results, and in my opinion, better results because I am confident that what I am applying to my doll will not dry the finish out, nor will it allow moisture into any crazing or cracks.
AND you can purchase this paint for under a dollar a bottle when it is on sale!
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE COMPOSITION DOLL
When we think of the composition doll, we generally think of the 1920s-1930s era, when the composition doll was at the height of their popularity. When many of the most dynamic American based doll companies of this era dominated the industry. Up until the 1950s, the composition doll and their makers would be the Kings of the doll world.
American made composition dolls can be traced as far back as 1899. But the true development and circulation of these dolls did not penetrate the market until about 1914. Many composition dolls were produced during the early 1900s but until the onset of World War I, European dolls still dominated the doll market. World War I began, to the dismay of many but the American doll industry took advantage of the halt in the import of European dolls. Thus began the composition doll era, which would become the precedent for the American doll industry for the next 36 years, until 1950, with the introduction of the hard plastic doll era.
The American doll companies would strive to create the ultimate "Unbreakable Doll", much better than the very breakable bisque head dolls of the European trade.
Companies such as Madame Alexander, Effanbee, Horsman, Ideal, American Character, Madame Hendren, Arranbee and so many others were competing to come up with the ultimate formula to create these now know, "Can't Break Um Dolls. "
The components used in the earlier compo dolls consisted more of a glue-based compo formula that tended to be heavy and dense. A 'cold press' method was used for these earlier dolls and many companies stayed with this formula for years to come. Some companies were striving for a better formula, so around 1918 a new, lighter formula was created. The main component being sawdust and a new system called the 'hot press' method came into being. Here the composition mixture was pressed into hot molds that dried very rapidly, thus reducing production time. Through the years companies continued to strive to invent and create the ultimate formula to produce the most durable of composition dolls.
The years of the 1920's and 30's produced the most memorable faces in doll history. Patsy, Shirley Temple, Sonja Henie, Jackie Coogan, Charlie McCarthy, Mibs, Kewpie, Deanna Durbin, Dolly Dingle and so many others. Doll companies were feigning for the patent on one face or the other and so many replicas to satisfy the public's demand.
If we look back in time, what other era created such a demand? A demand for the face of a celebrity child star that we've come to adore, a face of a soldier, or just the face of a cartoon character who just makes us smile at a time when America needed to smile. Whatever our reasons or fascination with the dolls of this era, the composition doll, to me, is the epitome of an innocent time gone by. A time when America was at it's most innocent, when an ad with the sparkling eyes of a doll could make us forget for just a little while.
This gives you a basic overview of maintaining and preserving your composition dolls. By following these rules, your doll or dolls will give you many years of enjoyment.
The most important element in the care of your dolls is the atmosphere in which they are kept.
TEMPERATURE & HUMIDITY
This is a very simple concept - Room temperature should be around 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity should be about 45-55%. To monitor your temperature, you have your thermostat, to monitor humidity you will need to purchase a humidity gauge. You can find these at a hardware store or museum supply stores. You can also purchase Humidity Indicator Cards, which provide a visual record for monitoring humidity in display cases. These can be purchased from the Conservator's Emporium. Their address is 100 Standing Rock Circle, Reno, Nevada 89511. Their phone is 775-852-0404.
• Try to avoid drastic temperature changes - this causes the doll’s composition to expand and contract
• Keep dolls away from forced air heating and cooling systems (dries them out, causes paint flaking)
• Try to keep your dolls in a display case or showcase (keeps the dust off of them)
• Keep your dolls away from direct sunlight or any intense lighting units
• NEVER store your dolls in a basement or attic!
• Cigarette smoke is one of the worst things for a doll collection. It leaves a residue on the doll's finish and the smell permeates the hair and clothing
• Do not clean the composition on your doll - No wax, cold creams, nothing. I've heard in the past that people use these things to 'shine' their doll up, but what they don't realize is the most minute crack or craze can absorb these things and eventually could cause lifting of the composition. The most you should ever do is take a piece of very tightly woven cotton material and slightly buff your dolls finish - THAT'S IT!
If your doll is kept in a protective enclosure, there is no need of further cleaning. You want to maintain as much of the original patina of your doll as possible.
Composition dolls have eyes made from a variety of materials. Tin, metal, plastic, celluloid or glassine. And we all know that the two later materials are the eyes that sometimes craze or crystallize. This is the result of the metal behind the eyes rusting and this causes the crazed effect. Sometimes this is not that noticeable but at other times you get that eerie greenish effect which is not very attractive. If this is the case, have the pupils replaced. NEVER OIL your dolls eyes! This is only a temporary fix to disguise the problem, it does not last. And the worst part of this is most people are not careful when putting the oil in the dolls eye and they get the oil on the dolls composition around the socket of the eye. If you have ever seen a doll with haloed eyes that are a very light olive green color or just a slightly darker color around the eye socket, then you know some heavy-handed individual was oiling the dolls eyes. Many doll people swear by this and it is not a practice that I feel is very helpful. As I said it is not permanent and in my opinion is a practice started by doll dealers who wanted to conceal this eye problem. If the eyes are that bad, replace the pupils. A good doll restorer can do this, and with beautiful results. I've done it many times, and I can match the original eye color or whatever the owner is looking for.
Your doll’s hair is either human or mohair. Synthetic hair was not used on composition dolls. Regardless of the condition of your doll’s hair, try to keep the original wig. Even if you replace it with an appropriate wig, keep the original wig with your doll to retain it's originality; never throw it away. If your doll’s wig is a little flat or slightly matted you can use a toothpick or skewer stick and lightly pick and fluff the hair. Mohair tends to become matted, so with this technique you can give it a little life. Never comb human or mohair, it will fall out. If your doll’s wig is thin or sparse, try using a light colored hairnet and this pulls the wig more closely to the dolls head and gives a fuller appearance. Never wash your dolls hair; this is a process that is very tedious. The wig must be removed and washed properly. Leave this to your doll restorer. In my opinion this only needs to be done if your doll’s wig is in deplorable condition.
If your doll still retains his or her original clothing and shoes but they might be faded or in need of some small repair, don't replace them. Keep them and have them repaired or just let them be if the damage is not that bad. Originality is what you want in your dolls. If the clothing is very bad and no longer appealing to you, replace them with the appropriate era clothing but keep your original clothing with your doll (maybe in a Ziploc™ bag).
PHOTOGRAPHING YOUR DOLL
Photograph your dolls for insurance purposes. If you have an extensive collection, they should be cataloged also. With your photos you should try to have written appraisals of your dolls. And the photos and appraisals should be kept in a safety deposit box or fire proof box at home.
REPAIR & RESTORATION
The last, and to me the most important thing for you to consider, is choosing the right person to repair or restore your doll. I am a Doll “Restorationist” and I feel that less is better. But if your doll is cracking or peeling, YES it should have restoration work. This does not take the value from your doll. But do choose wisely when choosing someone to work on your doll. There are many, many people out there who call themselves Doll Doctors and this is a profession that does not require a college degree. When choosing the right person to work on your doll, ask any and all questions. Ask to look at photographs of prior restorations, ask what materials are going to be used on your doll, does the individual use an airbrush to finish the doll and probably, most important is word of mouth. Does the individual have a good reputation? What background experience does the individual have? You will be leaving a treasured heirloom with this person; you want to know as much as possible about him or her.
I hope that this information has helped you and if you are ever in need of further assistance with your composition dolls, feel free to call or e-mail me. I've been researching and restoring composition dolls since 1994, and aside from my family they are my one true passion!
Louise Sleeter - Proprietor of
I am a Composition Doll Specialist and Restorationist. I have a Degree in Fine and Applied Art with sculpting and airbrushing as my majors. I buy, sell, appraise and restore composition dolls. I am also an active member of the UFDC. To contact me, call or e-mail me at:
Doll Photographs ©2005-2013 by Louise Sleeter