Dolls of Our Fathers

Mika Taylor


A Brief History of the United States Presidency


Neither George Washington nor John Adams was known to keep dolls.

Thomas Jefferson, as confirmed in an entry from the journals of Lewis and Clark, received the gift of a doll crafted from beaded buckskin and festooned in porcupine quills. Jefferson's meticulous personal notes show him to have dissected it, identifying 3-5 different types of animal fur in the stuffing, including badger, deer, buffalo, and possibly beaver and black bear. 

James Madison left no dolls at the time of his death, but the burning of the White House in 1812 destroyed many of Madison's most treasured keepsakes. His wife Dolley, originally credited with saving their more valued possessions (including the now-famous portrait of George Washington cut from its frame), was lauded for her bravery and foresight. More than 15 years after her death, Paul Jennings, her former slave, claimed in his memoir that "all she carried off was the silver in her reticule" and it was a doorkeeper and the gardener who "took [the portrait] down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of." Lists of what may have been lost in the fire are varied and inadequate.

James Monroe had amongst his possessions busts of prominent philosophers and musicians, which are not, for the purposes of this history, considered dolls.

It is unclear whether the paper dolls found pressed in pages of John Quincy Adams's books were his own. Early librarians and researchers at the Stone Library discovered several. The premature death of Adams's only daughter has led some to speculate morbidly. Those who wish to attribute sentimental value to these items note that the "Little Fanny" doll found in the family Bible was first manufactured in 1810, a year before Louisa Catherine Adams's birth, which was itself only a year before her death.

Andrew Jackson was the first president confirmed to keep dolls for himself. A doll really. Throughout his career and including his presidential years, he kept a simple rag doll sewn from a scrap of cotton and stuffed with straw, presumably made for him by a relative, perhaps his mother.

Martin Van Buren kept a small number of model trains, but no dolls to speak of.

William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and James K. Polk left no evidence of ever having kept dolls.

Zachary Taylor kept two cornhusk dolls made in a traditional design, one male, one female.

Millard Fillmore's collection was extensive, ranging in styles and eras from wooden and wax dolls of the 17th century, to press-molded pulp dolls, to more modern porcelain. His collection is an anomaly among both doll collectors of the time and presidents in its breadth and depth. Most collectors and presidents seem to favor a single type or make, and if they are given to collect dolls, it is usually a small number of the same general style. Fillmore's china dolls alone include pristine examples from Kestner to Royal Copenhagen to Meissen to KPM. Also notable: these were his dolls and did not belong to either his wife or his daughters. He kept them openly, displaying them in the White House library. Mary Abigail Fillmore, his youngest, the White House Hostess from 1850-53 (while her mother was ill), was known to regale visitors with both her musical abilities and diverting stories of how, in her younger years, she'd tried and failed to steal and play with the various prized pieces from her father's collection.

Franklin Pierce kept a single doll, one of the earliest Frozen Charlottes. It was originally part of Fillmore's collection—a gift at the change of office, quite generous, considering.

James Buchanan kept a single wax doll dressed in black crinoline, presumed to be a token of his late fiancé Anne Caroline Coleman who died thirty-seven years before he took office from what her doctor claimed was "the first instance he ever knew of hysteria producing death." This same doctor also theorized that she'd overdosed on a tincture of opiates (a concentrate both bitter and strong).

Abraham Lincoln carved hickory dolls for each of his sons—rough, simple things resembling the peg dolls of the previous century. The carving was a habit from his youth, taken up long before he had children to entertain. Few of the Lincoln dolls remain, but it is known that after Eddie's death in 1850 he made hundreds in the boy's likeness. He did the same for Willie twelve years later. One can only assume, since the dolls themselves are not catalogued among his possessions, that Mary Todd Lincoln either buried, burned, or gave them away sometime before her husband's death in 1865. The decedents of Robert Lincoln have donated their modest collection of Lincoln dolls to the Smithsonian Institute. None of Tad's remain—he was still alive when his father was killed, turned twelve just two weeks before—too old for dolls by then.

Andrew Johnson was not known to keep dolls.

Ulysses S. Grant kept a set of figurines in blue and silver, carved bits of wood not dissimilar to chess pieces. Long after the War Between the States, he could be found arranging and rearranging these figures on a map of the US divided, replaying key battles. It is unknown what his specific aims were in these reenactments—whether it was to relive the experiences of war or to imagine changed outcomes (perhaps with fewer lives lost).

Neither Rutherford B. Hayes nor James Garfield was known to keep dolls.

Chester A. Arthur kept models of horses of varying shapes and postures, which are not, for the purposes of this history, considered dolls.

Grover Cleveland had a small collection of unglazed bisque dolls. None are particularly rare or have value outside of their association with the president.

Benjamin Harrison, like his grandfather, was not known to keep dolls.

William McKinley kept several dolls thought to have belonged to his daughters, Katherine who died at the age of three from typhoid fever, and Ida who lived only four months. Each doll wore slippers crocheted by Ida Saxton McKinley whose "nervous temperament" (marked by fits of epilepsy and hysteria), was calmed by barbiturates, laudanum, and crocheting slippers.

From their invention in his first term, Theodore Roosevelt was inundated with gifts of the eponymous stuffed bears—an enthusiastic populace showing their support. At one point, the White House is said to have received upwards of 100 per day. Most were donated to churches and charities, but Roosevelt kept a few, the most singular of which, a worn velveteen bear with moving limbs and only one eye still intact, was sent to him by an eight-year-old child, her prized possession.

William Howard Taft also received a surprising number of Teddy Bears during his time in the White House, sent by dissatisfied constituents to remind him of the president he was not.

Woodrow Wilson is the only president to go on record about his distaste for dolls. He himself kept none, and encouraged his daughters to play games such as hopscotch, checkers, or Snap! rather than "indulge in frivolous fantasy, dressing and nursing these ridiculous idols."

Neither Warren G. Harding nor Calvin Coolidge was known to keep dolls.

Herbert Hoover claimed that the only possession he kept from his childhood (before he was orphaned at the age of nine) was a flint and steel fire striker used by his father, a blacksmith. This striker was bent in the shape of a man and is said to have been buried with Hoover upon his death. For the purposes of this history, it is not considered a doll.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was known to keep marionettes. He had a great facility with the puppets and used them to entertain the young children of various diplomats. He is rumored to have wooed Lucy Mercer with an impromptu performance of Act V Scene 1 of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. More substantially, while in office, he is said to have, in private moments, used the dolls to play out affairs of state, interacting with a specially commissioned Churchill doll through one that resembled himself. One imagines him manipulating his Roosevelt puppet to move in ways his body no longer would, using his wooden proxy to pace for him, back and forth, in contemplation of world events.

At the time of his inauguration, Harry S. Truman was gifted a set of Emma Clear dolls made in the image of George and Martha Washington which he kept beyond his presidency until his death.

Dwight D. Eisenhower kept several celluloid Kewpie dolls with which he entertained his grandchildren.

John F. Kennedy's young children had a number of dolls in the White House including a Chatty Cathy, a Betsy Wetsy and a variety of baby dolls from various manufacturers. A rather tarnished Raggedy Andy of John John's is said to have been a favorite of his father's as well, though this account is unconfirmed. 

The much-used Barbie dolls in the Lyndon B. Johnson estate were almost certainly the property of his daughters or granddaughters and not of Johnson himself.

Richard Nixon owned a small but well curated collection of china dolls, which were not, as rumored, gifted from Mao Zedong in 1972. (China, of course, refers not to the country of origin, but the type of porcelain.) Most of the delicate pieces, each with dark hair and a quiet blush, date from the 1860s and bear the mark of German craftsmen. They seem to be heirlooms, though no records exist of their original purchase. They may have been a gift of state intended for Pat or his daughters, but their presence in the president's personal study, encased in glass, suggests otherwise. Perhaps it was with a sense of comfort that he kept them, their eyelids half closed, shaded in dainty lashes, watching and listening to all that passed.

Gerald Ford denied having kept dolls, but was rumored to have practiced the art of ventriloquism in his youth, which almost as a rule requires the use of a doll.

Jimmy Carter is not known to keep dolls. Notably though, all living presidents have been photographed with doll likenesses of themselves. Carter's bore a wide smile and a creased forehead. Whether he kept it or discarded it after the image was taken is unknown.

Ronald Reagan is the last president to have openly kept dolls. Most would also be considered memorabilia from his various film roles. Among the odd assortment were doll versions of Reagan as a cowboy, Reagan as a baseball player, Reagan as the president, and Reagan as a somewhat older cowboy with a chimp companion. He also received a set of Russian nesting dolls or "Matryoshka" directly from Mikhail Gorbachev that he displayed in the Oval Office during the second half of his second term.

The George Bushes—W. and H. W.—may both have parts of the family collection but have not made public the types of dolls contained therein.

Bill Clinton was gifted any number of dolls during his time in office. There is no public catalogue of which he kept.

Barack Obama's daughters were photographed often in their younger days with the popular American Girl dolls, but have since been seen with only books, computers, and cellular phones. The president himself is not known to keep dolls, but the implications of branding and corporate affiliations have made leaders ever more cautious of revealing themselves during their terms in office. Thus we must wait for time to lay bare our current president's place in this particular history of the United States.