Although they take up two display cabinets, one of the Vanishing Texana Museum’s most neglected areas in terms of research is our doll collection. A recent gift of a small doll by Paul and Sue Harris of Jacksonville sparked a flurry of research and united this new acquisition with an older one already on display. Another Mystery of the Museum has been solved!
The new ten and one half inch tall doll depicts a Native American woman with a papoose on her back. If you were a traveler in the 1950’s and 60’s you will recognize her. She comes from a series call Skookum dolls. This series of collectable Native American motif dolls was developed by Mary Dwyer McAboy (1876-1961), a non–Indian Anglo American, from Missoula, Montana. It is said she visited numbers of Native American tribes while doing research for her dolls. The first dolls were patented in 1913 and the name trademarked in 1919. Actually, no Native American languages use the specific word “Skookum,” though two tribes have words that are similar, one meaning “the people” and the other meaning an “evil spirit.” However, the word “Skookum” followed by the “Bully Good” slogan, which the doll’s manufacturer claimed the word meant in a non-existent Siwash language, was placed on each product. The dolls were usually shipped to tourist shops and national parks for resale as souvenirs.
A variety of sizes were fabricated ranging from three and one half to thirty-four inches tall. The dolls’ costumes reflected various Indian tribes (Pueblo, Sioux, Apache, and Chippewa), and the faces were life like. Skookum heads were originally apples, later composite, and finally plastic in the 1940s.The eyes were always pointed to either right or left, with right being the norm. It has been suggested that perhaps this was a result of the designer thinking Native Americans had an aversion to looking at another person directly. The legs and feet were soft pine wood in the older dolls, composites in later ones. None of the dolls had arms though padding beneath the ever present Hudson Bay or Navajo inspired Indian blankets that wrapped around the shoulders of the dolls suggested them.
Our new doll is in excellent condition and is quite charming. Her hair is mohair; she wears brownish-sand colored plastic moccasins and is wrapped in an undecorated light brown blanket. The papoose peers around the mother’s head from the left with eyes glancing right, wearing a yellow head band. Exact dating of the Skookum doll can be difficult, but guidelines exist, and it is suggested that this doll dates from the 1940s or early 1950s.
The museum’s original Skookum doll is somewhat different. It is male, again eyes facing right, fourteen inches tall, a bit scary looking, and has some serious damage to the neck and head areas. This highly collectable piece sports an authentic looking blanket and wears red pants. In addition, this doll is older, dating to the 1920s or early 1930s. The key to dating this doll is the paper label on the bottom of the suede covered pine wooden foot. The label displays a “fylfot” or “twirling log”, a Native American good luck symbol, today commonly referred to as a swastika. The company used this label during the 1920s and 1930s, but the symbol was removed with the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Another sign of its age is that it has real human hair (or maybe horsehair), not mohair as the more recent female doll.
Skookums were manufactured by the H.H. Tammen Company of Los Angles, California, and distributed by the Arrow Novelty Company of New York. Mrs. McAboy continued to supervise production until 1952, and doll production finally came to an end in the 1960s.
Today in our museum, the two dolls stand together as a couple- with child- happy to have found each other! If Mr. and Mrs. Paul Harris had not donated their Skookum we would know nothing of the original one gathering dust on a shelf. The doll was purchased by Paul’s grandfather Roberto Kohlhein in Reno, Nevada as a birthday gift for Paul’s mother, Paula.
Thousands of these collectable dolls were sold. Perhaps you remember them or might even have one up on a shelf. If you do, bring it to the museum to meet our happy Skookum couple as we would love to see it! If you wish, we will also attempt to date your doll for you!
Many thanks to John Taylor, president of our board of directors, for his contribution this week. He obtained the new gift, did all the research, and wrote the majority of this column.
There have been some changes to the business side of our museum. The city has folded the museum’s website into its tourist page, ExploreJacksonville.org, and our Facebook page has also joined the city Facebook page. Additionally, the museum now has a tab on the City of Jacksonville website, jacksonvilletx.org. The city page will be upgraded to include a community overview of the museum, information about volunteering, donating and loaning items to the museum, etc.
Our Native American basket exhibit ends October 31st. New exhibits starting in November and December include Alan Bean’s voyage to the moon on Apollo 12, an antique quilt exhibit, and a display of antique sleigh bells. Your Vanishing Texana Museum is open every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11-4. Admission and parking at our 300 South Bolton location is always free.