Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sweet Sue Skates: Fads of the Fifties

Here is the other doll from yesterday's post with her restoration completed. To recap, both these look-alike unmarked hard plastic walker dolls were sold to me as Sweet Sue dolls by American Character. This one, in particular, really does look like some of the Sweet Sue dolls but also resembles Madame Alexander's Margaret and Arranbee's Nanette. This doll came in much better condition than the other doll in the lot. She is also a walker and her walker mechanism was frozen so she could stand and "walk" but not sit. My mother says, "You know, they never REALLY could walk!". I sprayed some WD-40 into her joints and she loosened up so she can now stand and sit and her head turns as her legs move. She is still pretty tight, and there is a robotic quality to her movements, as she sort of clicks when you move her and sometimes her arms and legs make a sort of ratcheting sound. To avoid this I restrung her "sister" doll more loosely. The only other problems this doll had were that she needed a cleaning and to have her hair reset. She also has a melt mark on the back of one arm, but there's nothing that can really fix that short of replacing the arm. I started the restoration by cleaning her and washing her hair. The I reset the hair in the original "flip" style by rolling it on perm rods and pouring very hot, almost boiling, water on it.
To set the Saran hair, roll it on perm rods and pour very hot water over it.
Washing the hair caused the wig, which was barely glued on still, to come off. I set the hair when it was off the head; I just placed it on the doll's head so it would keep its shape while it dried. When it was dry I reglued the wig. On this type of doll you rewig using water-soluble glue so you can easily remove the wig later if you need to fix the doll's eyes or stringing. You draw a hairline for the doll using the glue (Aleene's Tacky Glue is recommended) and then cover the rest of the head avoiding the clip. Then push the wig over the glue and use rubber bands or ribbon to hold the wig in place as it dries. This creates a hairline for the doll. It is useful to help cover any old dark stains that might have come from the original glue. I usually just follow the marks from the old hairline, just covering it with the new glue.
Rubber bands hold the wig in place as it dries.
As I mentioned, there wasn't much I could do about the melt mark. I painted over it to minimize it. I also painted over scraping in the joints of the arms and legs and neck. This just re-scrapes, though, so I gave up on it. It doesn't show when the doll is dressed or is not being moved.

Melt mark on the arm.
I don't know what happened to these two dolls; they both had melt marks on their backsides. It's as if someone put them on a hot stove! This doll has another small melt mark on the back of one leg.

Small melt mark on the back of one leg.
These are pretty minor issues. I designed her dress with long sleeves so the arm would be covered. For the most part, this is a really pretty doll. She has very clear, bright aqua eyes. My father, who was otherwise kind of all gold, with dark skin and sandy dark blond hair, had eyes this color. He had very striking looks, and it has always been a great sorrow of my life that I got my mother's stupid no-color brown-green-gray hazel eyes. The doll's paint looks really good, and her hair is nice and pretty and holds its style well.

The restored doll.


As I mentioned yesterday, these flat-footed walker dolls seem more like "kid" dolls to me; sort of the equivalent of the American Girl dolls today. They were really popular in the 1940s and early 1950s, and Sweet Sue was marketed as "The Queen of Dolls". My mother was a bit too young for these. Her sister, who is four years older, had a Sweet Sue and a Toni, both hard plastic, and my mom remembers these were the last dolls her sister had before she became too old for dolls. There are a bunch of different versions of Sweet Sue, and they came in many different sizes. I don't know much about them, but I think these smaller hard plastic ones were the earlier versions. My mom had a Ginny doll and both the tiny and larger Betsy McCall dolls, a Posie brunette, and a fashion doll she called "Marti", but which might have been one of the Cindy dolls by Horsman. Mom is always complaining about how they couldn't afford anything when she was little, but looking back it seems like she had most of the dolls of the time except maybe the Madame Alexanders!

Mom tells a horrible story about how, when a neighbor's house burned down, her parents made her give her favorite doll, the larger Betsy, to the girl who lived there, since that girl had lost her toys. Later, Mom was walking by their rebuilt house and saw her doll lying out in the mud, totally destroyed. To be honest, making my mother give away her favorite doll seems rather unlike my grandparents. I wonder if really she had stopped playing with it much or something. At any rate now she bought herself a replacement, so I guess it's all good!

While I was restoring this doll I came across some 1950s or thereabouts doll skates, and that set the theme for the restoration. I know roller skating, at least where we lived, was quite popular in the fifties. My mom had a friend named Karen who was a wonderful skater. I know our roller rink offered figure skating lessons, but I don't know if she took them or if she was self-taught. She was really good, though!

Mom and Karen were such great friends, it has been the quest of my adult life to find such a friend, but I never have. Even though they were quite thin, they were always trying to lose weight, and they bought into every fad weight loss product that came along. They were always doing yoga, jogging, laying on the floor using some kind of pulley exercise system, or laying out in the sun on these metallic reflective blankets that were supposed to make you sweat all your fat off. They were members of the Raquet Club, the local health club, but I mostly remember they spent their time there in the bar, which had a view of both the swimming pool and raquet ball courts, so you could drink while you watched your kids! They usually negated their workouts by staying up all night playing Boggle and drinking wine.

Now, sometime in the early 1980s "Shoe Skates" came into vogue. These were roller skates that looked like tennis shoes. They sparked, at least in our area, a workout craze. My mom and Karen jumped right on it, skating around the block several times every day. I inherited absolutely no athletic ability from either of my parents, and Mom was so clumsy she had to skate around the block holding onto the baby buggy just to stay upright, even though she left both the babies with me while she exercised. I was like 6, so now that seems like a somewhat cavalier childcare plan, but I was a responsible kid, luckily! Karen, though, could skate on one foot halfway down the street, and she could do all kinds of other fancy moves. My mom said it was a sign of a wasted youth, but she was just jealous.

Years later we moved away and then Karen lost her oldest child. She left her old life and her remaining family, and we lost touch with her. As far as I know, none of her old friends know what happened to her. Just before she went away she said to me, "It's like I'm not really here anymore. I can see you and hear you, but it's like there's a fog between us and I'm just not part of things anymore." I miss her so much. When you see someone as much as we saw her it's like they become part of your family. I never see a pair of roller skates without thinking of Karen, and so I decided to make this doll after her in her youth, when she was Queen of the roller rink...the star of the skates. So wherever Karen is, this one is for her.


First, I found a silk scarf from the 1950s and made a floaty dress with a handkerchief  hem. This would be perfect for skating and dancing, as the hem floats out with movement. I know from my mother that Cancan slips, or full crinolines, were very in. She always talks about how they could only get one present for Christmas. One year she really wanted a Cancan slip but she also wanted a doll and she had to decide. She chose the slip. Another year she needed a bathrobe and had to get that instead of her doll. I listened with horror to those stories as a girl. It's just as bad as that part of Little House on the Prairie where the girls get nothing but tin cups and a penny (which they have to use later to buy school supplies) and they have to be grateful to Mr. Edwards for carrying them on his head through the river! I attached a full crinoline to the inside skirt of this dress so Sweet Sue won't have to make any such hard decisions!

Sweet Sue in bobby socks and saddle shoes.
Next I found a pair of saddle shoes and cut down a larger pair of bobby socks for Sue to wear when she's not at the roller rink. I made her two little bow hairpins embellished with rhinestones, as those were also very in to wear in your flip. I know all about fifties clothing because I just happened to win the title (and the gold cardboard crown) of Fifties Queen at my elementary school when I was in 3rd or 4th grade! My mom made me a poodle skirt, found an old cardigan for me, and I already had saddle shoes, as they were having a renaissance in popularity at the time, and mom let me borrow one of her most precious possessions, her silver charm bracelet. I got my picture in the paper with the Fifties King, a boy named Galen, who was the heartthrob of our school. His little girlfriend was so jealous she was spitting nails. It should have been one of the great triumphs of my life, but it was marred by tragedy. Later that day I took off most of the clothing, including Mom's bracelet, because I didn't want anything to happen to it. I put it all in a grocery bag, which was of course the paper kind since that's all they had then. It was early spring in Ohio, which meant there was a lot of slush and ice around sticking to people's boots. On the bus ride home I neglected to remember that the floor of the bus was always awash in melted snow and ice by the time it arrived, about an hour later, at my house. Flush with victory, my head clouded with memories of how Galen had put his arm around me for the photo, and everything he had said, and full of anticipation of what all my friends would say when I appeared in the newspaper, I didn't notice the bottom of my grocery bag had gotten all wet. As I began walking across our yard I felt the cardigan sweater fall against my legs and looked down to see with sinking terror that the whole bottom of the bag had disintegrated. I turned around just in time to watch the school bus run over my crown and my mother's charm bracelet. I ran over, but the bracelet was all ground into the slush, totally destroyed. I was so upset I had to go talk to the guidance counselor the next day to find the words to tell my mother what had happened. My mother was so angry she just walked away and wouldn't talk to me for a few days. I still feel guilty about it.

But anyway, I know all about the popularity of charm bracelets in the 1950s! Years later I went to college and had a sorority sister who, having NOT ruined her own mother's bracelet, wore it every day. It put my mom's to shame. Hers was gold and it had really big, elaborate charms. One was a globe enamelled to show all the continents, and another was a bowling alley with a ball that moved down the lane and really knocked down the tiny pins! Clearly, my friend's mother came from higher society than mine! I was thinking of this when I made this doll's tiny charm bracelet. The charms are oversized and one, a jointed teddy bear, really moves. It is not real gold, of course, though the clasp and ring are gold-plated.

The doll wears a charm bracelet. The repair to the fingers is nearly invisible.
This hand shown here had the fingers repaired, as two of them broke and were glued back on in the past, but as you can see I painted over the repair and it's nearly invisible. Besides the dress and other accessories, the doll wears eyelet bloomers so she can skate with modesty!

This is the last of the 1950s hard plastic child dolls I have. I enjoyed them and I hope someone else can pass them on to a new generation!


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sweet Sue Visits Venice

If any of you were waiting with baited breath for my next post (unlikely, I'm sure!) I do apologize. For Spring Break we took the kids on a trip to a condo in Myrtle Beach with an indoor water park. The water park turned out to be some sort of giant germ accelerator! A week later, my youngest and I are still suffering from a horrible flu-like illness, my oldest is on antibiotics for a toe which became infected after he stubbed it on the ladder of the water slide, and my middle daughter is sick with what could be Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease! It's been a terrible week, to put it mildly. I can tell I'm sick because I haven't felt up to working on my dolls at all, something I usually look forward to. Most of the time I can't put a project down when I have it this close to completion, but I had to push myself to care about it at all, much less finish it! I did finally manage to get it done.

Two hard plastic dolls before restoration
Here are the two dolls that started my 1950s obsession: two "sisters", listed as Sweet Sue dolls by American Character. These dolls were produced from the 1940s to the 1950s, if I'm not mistaken. I don't know why I bought them...it was stupid, because I knew NOTHING about them. I'd never even heard of Sweet Sue! Something about their faces just entranced me. They have the serene countenance of DaVinci angels. Before I knew it I had placed a bid. That was the Super Bowl Sunday when I went crazy bidding and came home to find I had won almost every auction! Now that I have researched these dolls more I find I probably paid top dollar for dolls who needed quite a bit of work; I probably could have held out for a better deal! These were great teaching projects, though, and now both dolls are fully restored to playable condition. That's something to be proud of!

These dolls are both unmarked, and so I call them "Sweet Sue" loosely. They could possibly also be Madame Alexander Margaret dolls, or Arranbee's Nannette. There is a definite Alexander feel in their face painting; their lashes and mouths have that Alexander look. The hair is the Sweet Sue ginger Saran color, though. I should mention these dolls are slightly different from one another. They have different color eyes, hair, and differently painted faces. They are also strung differently. So it is possible they are different versions by the same manufacturer or different brands all together. So many dolls of the time are so similar it can be nearly impossible to tell who made them. Copyright violation doesn't seem to have been a big concern!
The doll with fallen eyes.
The doll I am showing in this post is the doll who is in pieces in the first photo. She was included as a "parts" doll due to her terrible condition. Her eyes had fallen back into her head, her walker mechanism was not working, as her legs were unstrung, and she had a large crack down the side of her face. She also had a bad odor, which turned out to be due to her wig cap. It was rotten.
The doll's wig cap was rotten and her face had a crack down the side.
As this was the first walker doll I had ever restored, I found the hardest part of the entire operation was figuring out how to remove her head! There was NO reference at all in any of my books. I found one sentence in a blog on the Internet saying something about a clip in the head. After soaking off the wig I found the clip, so I finally was able to remove the head. This doll has really lovely hair, despite her rotten wig cap. It had been braided for a long time, resulting in cascading waves, and it is a lovely dark strawberry blond. I carefully picked all the rotten muslin out of the hair and off the head. Then I re-sewed the hair to a new wig cap I made from a thrift-store wig. To fix the fallen eyes I just reached inside the head and adjusted the lead weight. These rocker eyes are wired together and weighted in the center. The face was just cracked, not missing any plastic, so I just glued the crack together using Loc-Tite adhesive. Then I painted over the repair with oil-based paint and glued the wig back on.
The repaired eyes.
The repaired face and wig.
This type of walker doll is constructed with a metal bar that goes from the top of the doll's head, where it attaches with the clip, to the doll's hips. At the hip it branches out into a T-shape. There are two lead pieces with two holes and one lead piece with one hole used to attach the legs. What you do is hang the two-holed pieces from the T by placing the bars of the T through each of the small holes. Then you hook a rubber band or doll elastic loop (recommended) to the hook in one leg, draw it through all three lead pieces' large holes, and hook it to the other leg. When you have the elastic tight enough the doll's head will move as her legs move and she will stand and sit alone. This doll still has kind of loose legs (this being my first attempt at stringing) but she will stand alone with balancing. The other doll has a spring connecting her legs instead of a rubber band and her mechanism is so tight I had to spray it with WD-40 to even get her to sit. I felt the looser stringing is probably kinder to the old plastic limbs!
The fully-restored doll
Now I will tell you a story. This inspired my restoration of the doll! One of my grandfathers was stationed in Italy during World War II. When I came home from my internship in Florence and was rhapsodizing about how beautiful Italy is he acidly replied, "It sure wasn't beautiful during the war!" But then he went and got a box of trinkets he had brought home from a leave in Venice. I was amazed to see all the usual tourist kitsch you can still buy in the Venetian market stalls: the millefiore brass and shell mosaic jewelry, the glass bead necklaces, etc. I didn't realize they kept rolling that stuff out right through the war! Evidently he had brought this stuff home for a girlfriend, as he wasn't yet married, and she gave it back when they broke up.

Now, I happened to have purchased a large box of Eros brand mascotte pressed felt tourist dolls from the 1940s or so. These little 6 inch dolls make great display dolls for a larger doll to hold. The most perfect one is this little gondolier representing Venice:
A vintage pressed-felt tourist doll representing Venice.
The crazy turning of my mind churned up a little bio for my Sue doll. What if her father, stationed in Italy and taking leave in Venice, fell in love with the city? After the war, having more money than my grandparents, and only one child, he took his family back to Venice on a trip. I imagined Sue visiting the Isle of Murano and purchasing a glass bead necklace (even now, just TRY to check out of your hotel in Venice without taking the complimentary boat trip to Murano and Burano!). Then they would have gone on to charming Burano where she purchased lace garters for her stockings. Sue found the gondolas so charming that Papa buys her a felt gondolier doll. As you can see, I get a little too obsessed with my dolls. They start to have personalities and histories! Of course, once I had this idea I had to make all these accessories. As Jerry says, if you want something done to the Nth degree, get Mandy to do it! First I made a little glass bead necklace in the Murano style:
As you can see, I also embellished her chiffon gown with  matching beads. Then I made little beaded lace garters for her stockings:

Her chiffon gown is very authentic and looks a great deal like the Cotillion gowns some Sweet Sue dolls wear. I made it from two vintage chiffon scarves (one from Italy) of the type glamorous 1950s movie stars wrap around their hair when they ride in convertibles. The blue scarf is almost the exact blue-gray shade of the doll's eyes. The white scarf had quite a bit of damage in the form of stains and tears, so I put it on the bottom of the three layer skirt. The dress has a ton of hand-work and special sewing, including all rolled hems, attached wide sash, handmade chiffon flowers, beading, and vintage lace trim. The vintage side-snap shoes are a bit newer than the doll, but the robin's egg blue vinyl is a good match and they are very similar to the original shoes worn by these dolls. I even made her a matching chiffon flower hair pin! I can just see Sue attending the opera, perhaps, in her finery!


To get the fashionable full skirt, I made a heavy cotton and net crinoline for Sue to wear under her dress. I completed her ensemble with little flesh-tone back-seam stockings and white eyelet bloomer-type panties. I didn't give her a bra because she seems more like a child doll to me. I do know many of these girls wore bras, and several came in wedding gowns, but my Sue is a pre-teen!

The doll's walker mechanism moves her head when her legs move.
This doll's hair is so nice I didn't even have to set it. I love the waves made from wearing braids over the years. They stayed in even after I washed the hair. The way the back is stitched in a part makes me think this doll might have originally been a ballerina with a hairstyle of two little braided buns under her ears. That was a popular ballerina hairstyle, especially for the Arranbee and Madame Alexander dolls. That is also what keeps me from unequivocally naming this a Sweet Sue. I haven't seen any Sweet Sue dolls with that braided bun hairstyle.

The doll's hair maintains its original full part down the back.
There are a few little flaws I was unable to fix or just didn't think were serious enough to fix. There are a lot of minor dings here and there, and there is a melt mark on the back of one leg.

Melt mark on the back of the leg.
I repainted the melt mark and the dings, which helps blend them in. There is typical scraping in the arm, leg and neck sockets. Though I repainted this and sealed it it just scraped up again right away. This is minor and doesn't show if the doll is dressed. For the most part this is a really nice doll. She should be durable enough for another generation of play, and she's perfect for display. I hope you have enjoyed reading her story as much as I enjoyed imagining it!

The doll can stand alone with balancing.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Marybel Really Does Get Well

Here is lovely Madame Alexander Marybel, "The Doll Who Gets Well" from 1958. Marybel has the late 50s Elise face, or what some also call the Kelly face, which was used on the 15 inch Lonely Doll, and a couple ballerinas to name a few. I think this face may also have been used on a Revlon-type fashion doll by Madame Alexander. I thought only Marybel had the brown eyes but the other day I saw a brown-eyed Lonely Doll.


If you have been following my blog you may recognize Marybel from her pitiful "before" state as shown in my tutorial on replacing sleep eyes in vinyl dolls. She is hard to recognize; she really doesn't look like the same doll! Marybel had lost her leg stringing at some point and a helpful father had reattached the legs by twisting the leg hooks together inside her body. I have no idea how he got them twisted together. They were very tight and getting them apart was a bitch. Marybel's head was very tightly attached and I had to enlist the help of my son and father to remove it. I found it was attached with a heavy spring much like the "doll screw" if you are familiar with doll making supplies. This spring had lost its bounce, though, and was pulling the head down into the neck so tightly it was starting to cut into the vinyl neck. I made the decision to restring the doll without the neck screw. Because having the leg hooks twisted together loosened them, they roll in the socket. I strung her as tightly as possible and she does hold a pose now and can stand alone with balancing, but her legs do still feel rather loose.

The reason I had to take Marybel's head off was to replace her eyes. One was sticking and someone had gouged it with a screwdriver trying to unstick it. The lashes were rotten and falling out. I replaced that eye but then the other eye, though the same color, looked old and cloudy so I went ahead and re-did both of them. They function well and look beautiful. They are an unusual rich root beer brown.

Marybel was marketed as a doll for girls who wanted to be doctors or nurses, and she came with crutches, casts, bandages, and stuff like that. She wore pink pajamas, a filmy robe, and slippers. At least one set also came with a trunk holding her medical supplies on one side and a wardrobe on the other for her to wear when she recovered, but that is so rare I have only seen it illustrated in advertisements. Maybe they never produced it; I don't know. In any case, I have re-created it to the best of my ability here. First I gave her some pink pajamas:

Heirloom sewn chemise and panties used as pajamas.
These came as underwear on a Sweet Sue or that type doll. They are much older than the 1950s, however. I would say these were handsewn using heirloom techniques around the turn of the last century. The workmanship is just exquisite, featuring french seams, shaded tonal embroidery, and real mother-of pearl or shell buttons with tiny hand-embroidered button holes. Each tiny button is unique, of varying thickness. Sadly, this set was disintegrating and smelled musty, so I had to restore it. I washed the pieces by hand and air-dried them flat so they wouldn't pull. The fabric is full of holes in some spots, and it definitely is too fragile to sew into so I ironed fusible interfacing onto the back of those areas to stabilize them. On thin spots that were not yet holes I applied Fray Check. The panties still smell a little musty but only if you put them right up to your nose. I recommend using this outfit for display only. They do greatly resemble Marybel's original pajamas. If you want a child to be able to play with these I also made a satin slip and panties which could be used as baby doll pajamas:

Marybel's underwear, which could be used as pajamas.
I made a robe from the same satin. It has very lovely details, such as inset lace waistband with tucks and abalone buttons. Marybel originally wore a pink hair ribbon but I thought this creamy butter color went better with her hair and eyes. I gave her a brace made of an old Ace bandage. This can be worn on the arm or leg, as here. You might prefer the arm since I don't have any crutches. You can get doll crutches and casts and stuff from American Girl, but they don't look vintage. I bet if you watched eBay long enough the original crutches and stuff might turn up!


A lot of girls would probably still enjoy pretending to care for  a doll. My daughter has been suggesting that SHE would like such a doll to care for, since she would like to be a doctor. I hard-hearted-ly told her she has plenty of dolls and a doctor coat so she can play with those! The original owner got a little carried away playing doctor and actually gave Marybel several shots using a real pin or needle! This resulted in a split and several holes in one arm and less serious holes in the other arm. To repair this I used my trusty acrylic modeling paste and painted over the repair. The paint is a good color match but a slightly different sheen, so it is visible but not too obvious.

The repaired arm.
I am not sure what material this doll's body is. It isn't hard plastic, and it's not rubber. It's like a really heavy, thick vinyl. She has a nice twist waist like a fashion doll. Her arms are a different material naturally. Doll companies did that all the time back then and now it's the bane of my existence because the different parts age and no longer match. I guess the doll companies weren't considering how the doll would look after 50-plus years! This doll's arms, which I think are a thin rubber, kept their color better than the rest of the body, which is a more yellow tone now. It isn't too obvious, but it's there. This doll was also very dirty and has a lot of dirt ingrained, even though I have washed her several times inside and out, with many different products. She has two faint red spots on her legs and one brown spot, like a bruise. I guess you could pretend these were cuts and bruises from her accident! I faded them a lot with 10% Clearasil, and you could probably completely remove them with continued application. As I mentioned in other entries, we have our house for sale, so having Clearasil-covered dolls lying in all the windows is not ideal! All things considered, the doll looks wonderful compared to her previous appearance!




Marybel had some hair plugs missing and some breakage, so I gave her a partial re-root using human hair. It matches really well, though it is straighter and lighter than the synthetic hair. If you comb through her hair looking you will notice it, but otherwise I don't think you will see it. Her original hair is wonderful. You can style it by curling it around your fingers and it will stay the way you arrange it.

When Marybel is well again she can go out wearing her new outfit. I made her a pretty Georgette dress in yellow with blue roses print. It has a fully-lined bodice, double-layered, bubble-hemmed skirt, extra-wide grosgrain sash, and all seams are finished with overlock stitching. She wears vintage socks and side-button patent-leather or pleather shoes.


I worked really hard to restore this doll to a state where she could be played with again as intended. I think that, apart from the pink heirloom pajamas, she and her clothes are sturdy enough to withstand play from a child age 3 and up. Of course, you can just display her too; she'd be a lovely addition! Just from watching vintage dolls, I would say this is one of the rarer Madame Alexander dolls. You don't see this Elise face very often...I think they only used it for a couple years, and you almost never find the brown eyes. This is another restoration that really challenged me, because I was not sure at first if the doll could even be repaired. I am happy I was able to "treat" her! My next projects in the pipeline are a couple of hard plastic Sweet Sues or possibly Margaret-faced Madames. But I am going to take a well-deserved spring break for Easter, so you won't hear from me for a week or so! Happy Easter to you all!