March 2010 Feature Article

A Mini-Mystery Solved in My Own Backyard     By Marcie Tubbs, Photos by Bob Tubbs

       


 

The 5.5 inch “mystery” nurse, found in a booth at the famous Brimfield, MA antique market, started my search that finally ended near my own hometown.  

One common trait of dedicated antique collectors and dealers is their desire to know as much as possible about the items they collect and sell. Obviously, the background of a piece is required to help determine value, but for many, the enjoyment of a new addition is enhanced when it can be determined how, when, and where the object was made and, in some cases, its provenance. I am a collector of dollhouses, miniatures, and the small dolls that inhabit my mini mansions. I like to understand the evolution of materials that were used to make miniatures and dolls, the styles of dolls’ clothing, and the designs of dollhouse furniture and accessories. The stories of the doll and toymakers are often fascinating and provide rich insight into their creativity, skill and business acumen. Many years ago a beautifully preserved miniature nurse called out to me from a booth as I was walking along Route 20 at one of the famous Brimfield, MA antique markets. I, of course, could not ignore this small Florence Nightingale, although I didn’t know where she came from, nor what house she would inhabit. That doll was a mystery and started a search that was finally solved near my own hometown.

The 5.75” doll at first appeared to be made of a composition or clay material. Head and feet looked to have been molded separately from the body and limbs, and then attached, probably connected to an internal wire armature that created a frame for the body. Not long thereafter I found a similar doll, a mother that was cracked and crumbling. I was able to confirm that there was, in fact a wire armature, but as my husband and I looked at the body, it became apparent that the base material was probably rubber that had simply dried out and become brittle. Rubber and gutta percha had been used to make dolls components, without much success since about 1825. Natural rubber and gutta percha are natural latex saps gathered from certain trees generally found in the tropics. Since both materials are moldable, objects could be made by pouring heated material into molds. Neither material holds up well over time, however. When exposed to air, objects will darken, harden, and lose their pliability, then crack, craze and crumble. Many doll makers attempted to improve upon these materials and found some use for it in heads, bodies and as skin coatings. It never rivaled other materials for making dolls, however, and fell into disuse until the late 930s. The search for a substitute for the common German and Japanese bisque dolls intensified because of restrictions imposed as a result of the impending war, and rubber enjoyed a brief comeback.

Armed with a little knowledge, I kept looking for more dolls and printed information. A few years later, while living in North Carolina, a catalog appeared on eBay advertising a line of dolls made by the Fred K. Braitling firm of Bridgeport, CT. Looking closely, I thought I spotted my  nurse. I entered my bid and successfully won my “treasure”. When it arrived, I was pleased to see that my doll was one of 26 dolls pictured. The last page also pictured miniature furniture manufactured by the company. Knowing the breadth of the product line made it easier to spot the dolls, although most that I found suffered from aging. I slowly built a small collection, finding dolls of different scales and slightly different construction and design.

The mystery was not completely solved until our family relocated back to Connecticut and I started writing a book on miniature dolls. Fortunately, I had an opportunity to do research at the wonderful Bridgeport library - a fading classic chock full of old trade magazines and newspaper clipping files. With help from the research librarian, I found a treasure trove of information on the Braiding family and company.

The Braiding family had a long history in the doll business tracing back to its patriarch, Charles F. Braitling. Charles, born in Paris around 1840, emigrated to the U.S. and resided in New Haven, Connecticut. While on a return visit to his homeland, Charles was intrigued by fine bisque dolls he saw, and apparently saw a market in the US for quality dolls and toys. Returning to New Haven he opened a toy store in 1868, one of only three in the country.

He branched out and began making cloth and kid leather doll bodies to match the china and porcelain heads imported from Europe. Customers would often ask for shoes for their dolls, and Charles obliged. He was so successful that he sold his toy shop, and by 1891 incorporated a new company in Bridgeport, C.F. Braitling & Sons, focused on producing tiny footwear.

In 1897, Fred K. Braitling, Charles’ son, took over the reins, eventually renaming the company after himself and expanding its capability, producing 300 pairs of shoes an hour, in over 30 different styles. Braitling supplied the sandals for all of Ideal’s Shirley Temple dolls. Having built his business rapidly, Fred retired in 1934 and turned the company over to his brother, Ted.

Ted, twenty-one years younger than his brother, had also started in his father’s business as a teenager, and was apparently comfortable at running it. He became a frequent advertiser in Playthings magazine. In a March 1938 Playthings magazine ad for the New York Toy Fair, Fred K. Braiding, Inc., was advertising doll shoes, doll stockings, doll wigs, and dollhouse dolls. He exhibited at the Toy Fairs until 1943, when toy production in the U.S. virtually ceased.

One of Ted’s biggest contributions to the company was the introduction of a new line of rubber dollhouse dolls, “True Family Real People Dolls”. The idea for “real people dolls” was that of Marjorie True Gregg of South Tamworth, New Hampshire. She applied for her first patent in 1936. In a letter quoted by Janet Johl, in Fascinating Story of Dolls (at page 198), Ms. Gregg wrote: “I hope both as toys that children may play with, and as material for artistic creative work, my own dolls will someday be important.” Gregg wanted the dolls to be fully flexible, sanitary and washable. Apparently, a licensing arrangement was made with Ted Braiding, and the “The True Family, Real People Dolls”, made in 1":l" scale, were introduced in 1938.

Dolls were dressed in clothes appropriate to the period. Males had felt suits with a “dickey” resembling a starched dress shirt. Felt ties were glued under the collar. Shoes were black metal. Female dolls wore clothing of many styles. Seams on clothes were machine sewn, with collars glued. One-inch scale females wore shoes with a small heel.

Some female dolls had painted legs to resemble stockings. All dolls had molded painted hair and hand painted facial features. Dolls sold for about $1 apiece. They were also sold in various combinations as boxed sets. In all, more than 2 dozen varieties were made including a bridal pair, a priest, nurse, teacher, and African-American maid and waiter.

In 1938 Braiding added over-stuffed, fabric covered furniture to accompany the doll line. It could be used to furnish the cardboard and fiberboard dollhouses of the time. Cardboard frames were covered with cotton upholstery and draped with a patterned percale fabric to create chairs and ottomans. In 1941 pink, overstuffed bedroom furniture was added.

Braitling continued to tinker with the dolls. A 1939 Playthings ad stated that the “True Family” had been greatly improved and the line expanded for the coming season, “Dolls are now made with life-like molded hands and arms, molded in one piece with the head and shoulders, but still retaining flexibility.” According to a December Bridgeport Sunday Post article in 1939, the dolls did very well for the Christmas season. The dolls were requested by the New York Stock Exchange to illustrate a point in a roundtable discussion. A jeweler in Los Angeles ordered a bride, groom and minister for his window display. Braitling also announced that he was considering entering a new market, offering the dolls for use in store display dioramas.

In 2005, I acquired a smaller scaled family, each still in its cellophane bag, with a small paper label reading: “TinyKins; Doll House Doll; 3⁄4" Scale.” These dolls have the same look, clothing and features as the 1" scale line, illustrating that Braitling was expanding his line to fit with the 3⁄4": 1' scale furniture being offered by companies like Strombecker and Kage.

The war ended production of dolls and doll shoes, as rubber was no longer available for consumer use and leather was severely rationed. By 1943 the company had stopped advertising in Playthings. A small ad appeared in Toys & Novelties magazine in 1944-45, but the business was no longer listed as operating in the 1946 Bridgeport directory. I was stumped again. Had Ted ever reopened the toy business?

In researching my book, I posted a note on an on-line genealogy board seeking info about the Braitlings. A few years later, out of the blue, I received a response from a woman, a grandniece of Ted Braitling! She kindly added more detail to the story of the family and sent me a picture of a boxed set of dolls that she still had in her possession. Based on her information, I again went on-line and found a man I thought might be Ted Braitling’s nephew. I sent a letter to the gentleman inquiring about his relationship, and shortly thereafter received a phone call from a wonderful 84 year old who is, in fact, the nephew of Fred and Ted Braitling! He and my husband talked on a number of occasions, and he filled us in on the family and the final chapters of the company. The Braiding nephew had visited with Ted towards the end of the war and confirmed that the company was not operating. He recounted that the Braiding Company had historically used cottage industry “house workers”, outsourcing much of its hand sewing. Ted feared that his skilled sewers would not be available after the war. He could not afford to compete with mass produced toys, if he had to bring the tasks into the factory to be done by workers making union wages. He turned his attention and his factory to the production of a novel aluminum door latch. Unfortunately, that business did not succeed, and he retired to rural Connecticut until his death in 1954 at age 63.

Thanks to the wonderful assistance of a number of people, I was able to solve the mystery surrounding my little nurse. While I have been able to tell this and other stories in my book, there are still many “mysteries” waiting to be solved. Unfortunately, most probably won’t be solved so close to home.

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