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 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.


  1. Hello! I have a Sweet Sue who looks a lot like yours! Mine has a complete outfit with purse, hat, tag- beautiful. But! Her head is too high on her body- your description of the T-bar makes sense. How do I get inside her head to check it out?
    Thanks bunches!

  2. Hi! To look inside the doll's head you will need to remove it. It is a lot of work, so you may decide the head position is not off enough to warrent such intervention. But anyway, first you will need to remove the wig. Usually if you pour very hot water over the wig, avoiding the eyes, the glue holding the cap will loosen and you can then grasp the front of the wig and peel it back off the head. If it is stuck tight you will need to very carefully work at pulling it off. The old wigs are fragile, so use caution. Once you have the wig off you will see a metal bar like a staple in the top of the doll's head. Very carefully pry each side of the clip into a vertical position using a knife or pliers. Then you will be able to simply lift the head off the clip. I have seen Cissy dolls who appeared to have the t-bar construction when I looked into their neck hole but who actually had a rubber band holding their head on when I went to remove it, so use caution there as well. The rubber band heads are harder to position. You will need stringing elastic if that is the case. If it turns out as such please view my Cissy restoration post for more details. Good luck! Amanda

  3. Hi Amanda!Thanks for the great info! I have completely disassembled her! She has an inverted T bar connection, and it appears that the bar has been too long for her whole life! I have to shorten the bar, she looks so much better with her head in the correct spot on her neck. Inside the head there is a hard plastic piece that the bar fits into- plastic tabs come out the top, but are glued tightly in place. I am trying to decide for/against removing the back of head to get to that bit hanging down. Doesn't seem to be any way to get the post back in place..boohoo.
    She will be lovely and clean when done! Those springs are insanely hard to unhook/rehook! I will have a look at your Cissy post.


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