Dolls. Love them. Hate them. Dolls have been part of the human landscape for over a millennia. Used in rituals and ceremonies, as teaching tools, for entertainment, as child’s playthings, dolls in one form or another have been around for over 3,000 years.
While the Morrison County Historical Society can’t claim a doll of that venerable age, staff recently discovered that one of the latest additions to the Society’s toy collection is a prime specimen of 20th century doll culture, an E. I. Horsman Company “Brother” doll. The Horsman Company was the premiere doll manufacturing company in the United States starting in the mid to late 19th century and dominated the doll-making industry for well over a century.
The E. I. Horsman Company was established in 1865 by Edward Imeson Horsman, Sr. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1843, Horsman is said to have gotten his start as an entrepreneur at age fourteen by manufacturing baseballs and selling them after school. Horsman’s company found initial success with sporting goods such as croquet sets, tennis rackets, bows and arrows. Quickly becoming world famous for its high quality products, the company was the first to manufacture dolls in the United States.
By the 1870s, Horsman was traveling frequently to Europe to import goods and spent time in Germany, then the toy-making capital of the world. The first known commercially produced children’s dolls were made in Germany in the 14th century and Horsman’s trips may have influenced the decision to add dolls to the company’s product line. As early as the mid-1870s, it was selling German-made bisque-head dolls. Bisque, a fairly new material, had been introduced to the market earlier in the 19th century along with India rubber, glazed porcelain, and other materials. Prior to that, dolls were homemade from whatever substance was readily available – clay, wax, wood, bone, rag, ivory, and terra-cotta.
The MCHS “Brother” doll is a composite doll with a soft body and movable limbs. Dating to 1937, near the end of the Depression era, it was donated by Marilyn (Nelson) Gerlach, whose parents farmed in Upsala, Minnesota. In near perfect condition, the “Brother” doll is representative of the Horsman company’s innovative manufacturing expertise. Composite or composition dolls are made from a substance that involves a mix of varied pastes with other undisclosed ingredients. This mixture can be molded into virtually any shape and, when set, produces a smooth, virtually unbreakable, surface.
The head of the “Brother” doll, with its brown painted hair and pouting red lips, can be turned and has eyes that open and shut. By the time the Horsman Company started business, movable limbs had been around for a while but ball joints, which allow for more natural movement and flexibility, were a fairly recent innovation. Another major development the company took advantage of was the ability to sit up. It was not until 1860 that a baby doll was produced that could sit.
Horsman dolls have come to be highly collectible and are prized assets of many private doll collections. Touted as the “Best Known and Best Loved” name in American dolls, they were easily part of most children’s toy collections. The company’s success encouraged others to follow suit and, by 1900, there were at least ten other doll manufacturing companies operating in the United States. Still, there was nothing quite like having a Horsman doll and the Morrison County Historical Society has one!
~ Ann Marie Johnson
Formanek-Brunell, Miriam. Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood 1830-1930. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Herlocher, Dawn. 200 Years of Dolls. Krause Publications, 2005.
Herlocher, Dawn. Warman’s Companion Collectible Dolls. Krause Publications, 2008.
Jensen, Don. Collector’s Guide to Horsman Dolls 1865-1950. Collector Books, 2002.
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 30, No. 3, 2017.