1577 (when Shakespeare was 13) painting of lady Arabella Stuart. Unknown author, shows her holding a doll dressed in period clothing. Source
When looking into the history of stuffed animals, it appears that the first stuffed animal, properly called such, was not invented until 1880. Teddy Roosevelt would create the first Teddy Bear, while Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit would become the first stuffed animal to be patented. However, all of these examples come from the 19-20th centuries. Were there not earlier instances of children playing with stuffed animals?
It would seem that the evidence is conflicted on that point. While we believe kids played with stuffed toys, and particularly rag dolls and corn husk dolls that would sometimes be shaped into animals (think a knight riding on a horse, for example) it was much more common for the toys children played with in Shakespeare’s lifetime to be modeled after people, or after tools used by adults only in small form.
A woman with her daughter, who is carrying an English “puppet”. Drawn by John White in 1585-1593. Inscribed ‘A cheife Herowans wyfe of Pomeoc . / and her daughter of the age of .8. or. / 10. yeares’. Source
From the British Museum: In the caption to his very first image of Virginia, depicting the coastline of Roanoke and the first meeting of the English with the Indians, Harriot recorded: ‘We offred the[m] of our wares, as glasses, kniues, babies, and other trifles, which wee thougt they delighted in’. Explaining the engraving of this image, Harriot wrote that the young girls were ‘greatlye Diligted with puppetts, and babes which wear brought oute of England’. The girl in White’s image shows her mother the ‘babe’ or doll she has been given, a fully dressed doll of an expensive type available only to wealthy English children, not the cheap wooden ‘Bartholomew babe’ or tin variety that most children in London would have had to play with. No doubt the cheaper variety was mainly what was traded but this was the daughter of a chief and her gift would have been of an appropriate status. White used gold and silver on the dress of the doll and it is shown facing the viewer, its status obvious.”The British museum records in their evaluation of portraits like this one from White in approximately the 1590s, that like most things in society, toys were divided up into class levels. The doll the girl is carrying in the photograph is similar to the kind Arabella Stuart is holding in the unattributed painting of her childhood where she is also holding a doll.
Taking toys to the natives in the New World was a common trade item for English colonists. We have records from John White, who catalogued many journeys from England to North America that dolls, specifically, referred to as “puppets” were sent from England to be gifts for the families with children in the new land. It was part of the plan for brokering peace and finding trade agreements.
A full description of this image was not provided by the author of the website where this was located. You can see the full source here.
The word “poppet” also likely existed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, having originated from the word “popet” in middle English, which is a diminuitive expression of endearment like “sweetie” or “love” to describe someone. Typically it describes a woman, but it is connected to the concept of a puppet–a stuffed representation of a person.
Puppets in Shakespeare’s lifetime were hugely popular, appearing at festivals and street markets, the word puppet shows up at least 11 times in Shakespeare’s works.
Poppet was also a term used for a Kitchen Witch, or a stuffed witch kept in the kitchen. She is thought to ward off evil spirits and prevent messes like pots overflowing, roasts burning, and sauces spilling. While modern England mostly has no idea about this tradition, during the Tudor era, and therefore Shakespeare’s lifetime, they were hugely popular. We know about them from sources like
The will of John Crudgington, from Newton, Worfield, Shropshire in England, dated 1599, divides his belongings amongst his wife and three children, “except the cubbard in the halle the witche in the kytchyn which I gyve and bequeathe to Roger my sonne.” (Source:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitchen_witch)
So when it comes to poppets, or kitchen witches, even some adults had stuffed dolls!
I found this blog where a lady says her friend owns this doll dated to 1600. It is unclear the source of the doll, or it’s provenance, but she describes it this way:
She [meaning the doll shown above in the side-by-side pictures, which belong to her and not me Source.] is attributed to a daughter of Karl IX, princess Katarina, and may have been made by her, or perhaps just owned. It sems quite likely that she was a fashion doll, made to show of what was fashionable. She is dated to around 1600, which probably made Katarina a bit too old to play with her, as the princess was born in 1584. The doll is also in a very good condition, which makes it a bit unlikely that she was used as a toy. Adorable she is, nevertheless! And my friend Caroline who provided the gorgeous pictures in my last post, has kindly let me use more the following pictures of Pandora as she was unpacked.”
You can read her story, as well as find links to this particular doll’s history on her website. One particularly fascinating bit I discovered was how they use portraits of Elizabethans to compare the hairstyles of the doll to real people. Apparently, the fashion of the time used dolls like this one to establish what something was going to look like before it was created. Then, once the doll was finished with its’ purpose as a professional tailoring tool, would sometimes be given to children as playthings. See the full blog here.
Still want to learn more? Here’s some resources for you:
For a very detailed look into the history of dolls specifically, as it applies to the Renaissance and 15-16th century, I recommend you check out Joan and Crispin’s website here. They have several references to literature, plays, and wills from the period that provide excellent links to archival and primary sources to consider if you are delving into serious research on the Shakespearean history of toys. Scroll all the way down for a list of their sources, including several excellent books on the topic.
Some sources I used:
Books you might like:
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