Thursday, December 8, 2016

Merry Mary Ellen

Mary Ellen

If you've been reading this blog for a long time you might remember the time I went to the Apple Festival and found a Mary Ellen doll being used as a mannequin in a thrift shop. That was really exciting because Mary Ellen is one of Madame Alexander's rarest dolls. Mary Ellen debuted in 1954 and was made for two years only, in 1954 and 1955. She is 31 inches tall and can wear real baby clothes in size 24 months or 2T. Mary Ellen's original outfits were luxurious. Catalogues from the period describe dresses of taffeta, organdy, and wool with accessories of plush and kid leather.

The distinctive charcoal gray eyes

The walker bar was cut.

The doll is marked

A Mary Ellen doll in mint condition easily commands upwards of $300. I believe I've seen one in the original box, but she was not mint and that was many years ago. Mary Ellen is easy to identify because she is huge and marked on her back. She looks a great deal like the "play pal"sized Sweet Sue walker dolls of the period, except Mary Ellen has really unusual and distinctive dark gray eyes, like charcoal gray. Mary Ellen had one piece plastic arms in 1954 and then in 1955 she got vinyl jointed arms like Cissy's.

I restrung her.

A wire bar keeps the hips from falling in.

A wire helps keep a loose arm in place.

This Mary Ellen, as I noted, was being used as a mannequin and was in unfortunate condition. She had been repainted at some point and the paint on her arms was flaking. Her face paint was chipped. I think she had a hair cut. The inside of her body was mildewed. I ended up getting her for $30 because when my daughter carried her over to the counter to ask how much she was one of her arms fell off!

Her worst issue by far, however, was the fact that someone removed her walking mechanism. The problem with taking out the walker is the doll must then be strung and because the dolls were made to have their hip balls attached to a walker bar they are often not large enough to fit outside the hip joint. When the walker bar is removed there is no tension pushing the hips apart and the elastic stringing cord pulls the hip balls inside the body. That, in turn, makes the head loosen and fall forward. I had to look all over the house and garage for something to hold the hips apart. I was hoping to find a dowel rod but we didn't have any narrow enough to fit inside the legs. I ended up twisting aluminum fence wire into a strong bar. After I got the doll strung I forced the wire inside each hip joint to push the hips apart. One arm was loose (it probably attached to the walker in some way as well) so I made a wire hook to hold it inside the body. This solution works pretty well, although sometimes you have to kind of maneuver the legs around the wire bar when you are trying to help the doll into a sitting position and the arm still occasionally falls off.

Styling hair

The finished doll

The wire bar holds the hips apart.
When I was finished with the stringing I worked on Mary Ellen's hair and repainted her face. Her eyebrows were re-painted during her earlier restoration and I don't love them but I left them because I'm not sure I could do much better. Madame Alexander's eyebrows from this period are really unique and it's hard to get them just right. I just filled in the chipped places and gave her some blush. Her eyes were kind of cloudy but a cleaning with turpentine made them lustrous again.

The re-painted face
If I ever decide to sell this doll I may paint the eyebrows again. I am not selling Mary Ellen right now because for one thing, she makes a great mannequin for the baby clothes I sell and for another my daughter loves her. My daughter would be extremely offended if you suggested she still plays with dolls (although she does, especially when her friends come over) but she is captivated by Mary Ellen's ability to wear real baby clothes. She also loves fashion design and she can use real kid patterns to make clothes for this doll. So, I decided to give Mary Ellen to her as a Christmas gift.

I was able to find a twill sailor dress with brass buttons from around the same period as the doll. A gorgeous pair of shoes came in a big lot of doll clothes and I was thrilled to see they fit Mary Ellen. The shoes feel like real kid leather and suede and they're beautifully beaded. Now Mary Ellen has the same elegance and quality of costume as she would have originally. She will make a beautiful mannequin for me and a sweet companion for my daughter. You can find restored dolls, many just as rare as Mary Ellen, in my Atelier Mandaline shops on eBay and Etsy, and I hope you will check.

Mary Ellen fits in my own childhood chair.

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