Through July 15, the Field House Museum has opened its third floor to the exhibition, “From Caricature to Celebration: A Brief History of African-American Dolls.”
The exhibition is connected to the Field House and its namesake family. Roswell Field and his wife Francis Field moved into the house in 1850. Roswell worked as an attorney on the Dred Scott case, helping propel it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their son Eugene Field was born there. Eugene became a famous writer in the late 1800s, but the house became a nationally historic landmark based on the work his father did on the Dred Scott case.
“We have a mission of telling the story of Eugene, who was a children’s poet,” said Stephanie Bliss, assistant director with the Field House Museum. “We also tell the story of Roswell Field and his work as an attorney, most specifically on the Dred Scott Case, and then we have a large toy collection based off of Eugene’s love of toys.”
The oldest doll they have dates way back to the early 1900s, and the newest doll was acquired as recently as 2016. They have Mammy dolls, Topsy-Turvy dolls, Little Black Sambo figures and books, Uncle Remus, and even traditional African dolls on display.
“One of the things we like to do is explore our collection to see what we can put on display and show the different aspects of our mission,” Bliss said. “What better way to do that than highlight some of the dolls in our collection, and this time we wanted to focus on African American dolls.”
The exhibit starts off with traditional African dolls and then gets into dolls based on caricatures and stereotypes. Then it progresses through the years to show the diversity of dolls, how they became more realistic in recent years and the celebration of that diversity.
“We wanted to just show and highlight that there are so many different types of dolls out there, even within the African-American race, that you don’t see a lot,” Bliss said. “Just get to know the different dolls that are out there, and see that there are different types and different styles.”
Debbie Behan Garrett collected African-American dolls. One doll pictured in her book “Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion” is on display.
“Most of the time when people find out that Eugene was a toy collector, they like to give us their toys because it's something they’ve cherished throughout the years, and they want to make sure that it stayed safe for future generations,” Bliss said.
There is also a small section in the corner for kids to color and make their own doll or dress real African American dolls in miniature doll clothing.
“These dolls help tell the story of what was going on at the time, and what was being learned from them,” Bliss said. “We would love you to come out and see the wonderful dolls that we have on display.”
The Field House Museum is located at 634 S. Broadway in St. Louis. Its visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, as well as Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Tickets range from $5 to $10. Visit fieldhousemuseum.org for more information.