For most of its 200-year history, the art of paper-doll making has not been flattering to black folks. Prior to the mid-1950s, white illustrators and publishers generally drew the rare black paper doll in menial or supporting roles, often as an appendage to a white family. Mimicking popular culture, images of picaninnies, sambos, mammies, butlers and maids—men, women and children dressed to serve—appeared in newspapers, magazines, books and box sets, on greeting cards and as advertising premiums. During the golden age of paper dolls, from the 1930s through 1950s, millions were printed.
As an avid paper-doll collector, imagine my delight to encounter Bling City Paper Dolls, a souvenir book of paper dolls by artist Bruce Patrick Jones, at the recent annual convention in New Jersey. The celebrated artist has managed to merge 21st century hip-hop culture with the historic lore of paper dolls. The bikini-clad quartet of black paper dolls, personifies the bling lifestyle of today’s young, self-assured, upwardly mobile, creative entrepreneurs. They are effusive and vibrant and unrelentingly confident.
With bold strokes, Jones has captured the progress of a people.
Paper dolls date to the early 1700s. But the earliest known mass-produced black paper doll published in the United States was Topsey, a fictional character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1863). For the next 100 years, paper dolls generally depicted people of African ancestry in stereotypical and unflattering ways. With the sustained campaign for civil rights, landmark Supreme Court rulings and the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, more varied and realistic depictions of African Americans began to appear in the mainstream media. In many ways, paper dolls mirrored these societal shifts: integrated paper-doll sets, fashion models, celebrity and athlete paper dolls. But families portraying mothers and fathers, depictions of brides and grooms and historic figures remained scarce.
Bling City Paper Dolls represent a relevant departure from the norm because paper dolls are more than just child’s play. Toys socialize children in the ways of our society. It is during playtime that children learn their ascribed role and their place, as well as how beliefs and values are transmitted from one generation to the next.
I first met Jones at the annual paper-doll convention in Cleveland in 2003, where we were two of the handful of blacks in attendance. An easy-going, bespectacled Jamaican who moved to Toronto in 1971 to study at Ontario College of Art, Jones developed an early interest in paper dolls as a child in Jamaica. As with many paper doll enthusiasts, his fascination began with an interest in popular and glamorous Hollywood film stars.