Drawing on Dolls: Conceptualizing an “American” Childhood through the Index of American Design

Allison Robinson, University of Chicago

The Great Depression ushered in a surge of American interest in its material past. Wealthy individuals, such as Henry Ford and Henry DuPont, amassed thousands of American artifacts to display in their own museums. John D. Rockefeller contributed funds to restore and rebuild historic landmarks such as Colonial Williamsburg. Even the federal government committed funds to capture and research material culture produced prior to the twentieth century. My paper examines this moment in American history when a cultural urgency to define an American arts tradition aligned with federal administrative and financial support. Under the Work Projects Administration, artists produced over 17,000 watercolor renderings of American art and material culture from the colonial era to 1900 to form the Index of American Design. Focusing on dolls, I argue that the Index defined and materialized a colonial and nineteenth century American childhood for a twentieth century audience. The Index of American Design is part of a global movement to define national heritage through art in the mid-twentieth century. The literature on the Colonial Revival Movement discusses the rise of historic preservation and collecting on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1930’s onward. My work intervenes in the conversation by considering how an “American” childhood came to be defined within this cultural work. The artists at the Index of American Design represented toys made in the United States and imports from France and Germany. The Index discussed homemade dolls side-by-side with imported, artisan-made dolls. This duality of import and handcrafted, international and American-made, became the foundation of a uniquely American tradition of play. Focusing on these dolls, I argue that the federal government created a narrative about an American childhood in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries within and in resistance to this centuries long cultural and economic exchange with Europe.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 259. Drawing Boundaries