The dolls in this collection appear to date from the mid-19th century. Their exact date and place of origin are unknown.
The first Western paper dolls appeared in 18th century Paris during the reign of Louis XV. Several sources assert their existence in 9th century Japan. While the French considered the dolls to be whimsical toys, the British used similar dolls to convey moral messages. Early European paper dolls often depicted actors and actresses and could be used with toy stages. Many of these dolls had permanently printed costumes. Early dressmakers also used a version of a paper doll, eight inches tall with joints made of thread, to design and model clothing.
The first American paper dolls were much less elaborate. As paper was a prized resource in Pioneer America, it was rarely used for toys. Those children privileged enough to obtain them often stored them between the pages of a book. As paper became more available, the dolls were mass produced on cardboard. McLoughlin Brothers, founded in 1828, was the largest paper doll manufacturer of its day. The dolls were printed from engraved wood blocks. Early American paper dolls were typically colored by hand. During the Civil War, widows often earned money by making and embellishing paper dolls. The first paper dolls did not include tabs for dressing the dolls. Instead, drops of sealing wax attached the clothing.