As the year draws to its inevitable consumerism-crazed conclusion, gift givers seeking inspiration for youngsters and the young-at-heart would do well to visit the Susan Quinlan Doll and Teddy Bear Museum at 122 West Canon Perdido Street. A vast treasure trove of childhood curios containing between 3,000 and 4,000 plush toys, action figures, movie memorabilia, and artisan figurines, the museum is a hidden delight, with the real treat being Quinlan’s informative guided tours. We talked to Quinlan recently about her collection, doll-making trends, and why dolls and teddy bears continue to be a popular gift.
Why do you collect dolls and teddy bears? There are so many things I love. I’m into artist dolls and artist teddy bears; I like the art aspect, the creativity that the artists have in making them. They take simple materials and make the most incredible dolls or bears out of them. I also like the fact that they’re reflective of history and fashion. I have one gallery that’s all book-related dolls and bears, and since I used to be a librarian, I am drawn to those, as well. The other aspect that I really got interested in was California doll makers, artists, and so on, ‘cause I thought that’s something that’s not usually covered in other museums.
What are the big trends in dolls? I would probably say the biggest trend right now is ball-jointed dolls. They have become very, very popular, probably the best sellers today, and are keeping a lot of the doll collectors going. They have so many joints and can be posed so nicely; you can take them apart, reassemble them, put a different color eye in, put a different kind of foot on, change the head so they have pixie ears … I think this has appealed to people, to be able to buy one doll and buy all kinds of different accessories to make different kinds of dolls out of them.
Why do people continue to love dolls and teddy bears? Why do people collect them? I think comfort is a big part of it. Dolls were one of the biggest kinds of toys they could get, and they became friends, they became companions. With teddy bears, you could tell anything to a teddy bear, and it would never judge you, never tell anyone else; you had confidentiality, you could hug it, it was squeezable, and cloth dolls were very comforting, too. For a lot of people, the older collectors, they didn’t have a lot of the kinds of toys children have today. People love to get reconnected with their childhood; the older collectors come in to see the dolls they had as children and remember. And of course the children come in today to see what mommy had or grandma had.
What has been the most eye-opening aspect of collecting dolls? What fascinates me most is to find connections. Connections between the dolls and some other aspect. There’s a book about the fairy-tale cottages of Carmel, which were done by a man named Comstock, and his wife turned out to be a doll maker. Someone wrote a book about the cottages, and the author drew pictures of the dolls. That was a connection I never would have thought of … I love things like that. I have a Jean doll in there because one year she was dressed up to be the Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade. Colleen Moore, who did the fantastic fairy-tale castle in Chicago, also had a ranch in Paso Robles … Finding all these connections with California manufacturers and people, I love putting them together.
Any tips for buying dolls or teddy bears for young ones? Well, their age would be of great importance, of course. The younger ones, you’d have to go with safe, probably soft dolls or toys, in which case teddy bears might be a preference. Even today, Raggedy Ann is quite popular — next year is her 100th birthday, so she has really endured. American Girl dolls are very good because not only are they a good size, easy to hold, and dress, but they come with a lot of historical information about the period of time they represent, and I think that’s a very nice part of that. If they’re into fashion, there’s still Barbie, and she comes in so many price categories. Otherwise you should probably get to know the kids a little bit and ask them their preferences.