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!


  1. Such a lot of care and love you put into these gorgeous dolls, ensuring they will last and delight other generations. I love how personal you've made this post about your family. Yes, I'd be horrified if I was asked to have over my favourite doll and them found it abandoned in the dirt. ,,,

    1. I really wonder about that; you know, I lived with my grandparents and they never acted like that. I wonder if they told her to pick out a toy and that was the first doll she saw without thinking it through. My mom is one of six and there was always a lot of confusion and chaos! Thank you as always for your kind compliments!


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