The Best-Dressed Doll in the World

A new exhibit opens this evening at the Nebraska History Museum! The Best-Dressed Doll in the World: Nebraska’s Own Terri Lee runs through September 1, 2013, and is also the subject of a richly-illustrated article in the Winter 2012 issue of Nebraska History. The exhibit and article reveal the surprising impact and history of Terri Lee dolls.

While Terri Lee is an unfamiliar name to most people today, the dolls were popular in the 1940s and 1950s, and remain highly collectible today. Much of their popularity was due to brilliant marketing that portrayed the dolls as companions and the owners as “little mothers.” For example, dolls came with an Admission Card to the “Doll Hospital,” where they could be sent for repairs if they were broken or “sick.”

In early 1946, sculptor Maxine Runci was on her way to the Toy Fair in New York City. With the end of WWII, toy production was on the rise, and Maxine hoped to find a company interested in a doll she designed. On the way to New York, she stopped at her parents’ home in Omaha, and created another prototype doll modeled after her daughter. Maxine’s aunt Violet, who lived in Lincoln, adored the “toddler doll,” and accompanied Maxine to the fair. When they were unable to find a manufacturer, the women decided to produce the dolls themselves, and the Terri Lee Doll Company was born. They could not have known that this little Lincoln, Nebraska, doll company would create breakthroughs in the toy world.

One reason dolls from the Terri Lee Company were popular was because of the astonishing variety and quality of clothes being sold for them. Outfits matched current fashions for little girls, and often matching mother-dolly clothing was available. In 1951, it was even possible to buy a $250 mink coat for your doll (approximately $2,135 in today’s dollars).

Violet's granddaughter, Connie Lynn Taylor, in a matching mink coat with a Terri Lee doll. Courtesy Terri Lee Doll Company. NSHS RG5812-56

By 1947, Terri Lee Dolls was one of the early dolls made of plastic instead of a composition material. Plastic dolls were much more durable and water resistant, making them more marketable. That same year, the company showed it was far ahead of its time socially as well by creating dolls of different ethnicities.  This was groundbreaking at a time of widespread segregation. Early dolls of color like African American Bonnie Lou and Benjie were made from the same mold as Terri Lee and were painted brown. In late 1947, Violet worked together with Jackie Ormes, the first African American woman cartoonist, to design an expressive new face for Patty-Jo, a non-stereotypical black doll based on Ormes’s cartoon character that she drew for the Pittsburgh Courier, the country’s largest black press newspaper.

Patty-Jo dolls

To keep up with increasing demand, the company had to move to larger buildings in Lincoln several times. Things were looking up. In 1951, the Terri Lee Company had 190 employees and was located on 2012 O Street. However, on December 15, 1951, the factory caught fire and was completely destroyed. No workers were injured, but there were reportedly more than $75,ooo worth of damages and 150 dolly casualties who had been sent to the Doll Hospital.

After the fire, Violet bought a factory in California, and dolls were no longer manufactured in Nebraska. However, Lincoln’s mark in toy history had already been made: the home of dolls that influenced an entire generation with breakthroughs in business and social ideas. In an upcoming post, we’ll take a look at some of the controversies that surrounded Terri Lee’s successes and tragedies.

- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant

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8 Responses to The Best-Dressed Doll in the World

  1. Chris Redman says:

    I was not able to have a Terri Lee doll until I was an adult, although I wanted one. I have several now and love them very much, I agree the clothing was a big part of the selling point.

  2. Pat Huber says:

    I still have my Terri Lee doll and she is beautiful.. I got her Christmas of 1954, have had her for about 58 years. I would like to learn more about her. Thank you very much. Pat Huber

  3. diane lola booth says:

    I have loved these dolls for over sixty years. How neat it is to see them again!

  4. Patricia Bryant says:

    My sister and I were the happy recipients of Terri Lee dolls one Christmas in the 50′s. Mine had long, auburn pigtails and my sister’s had white, curled hair. The next year we received Tiny Terri Lees. We are both in our 60′s and still have our dolls and the outfits our mother made for them, including a satin-lined mink fur coat (my uncle had found a strip of fur someone discarded after making a short coat from a long one!) Our grandmother also crocheted a sweater and cap for each of them. I live in Missouri now, but I plan to visit the museum next summer. Most people I’ve encountered don’t know what a Terri Lee doll is and I am anxious to see a whole display of them!

  5. Linda Alexander says:

    Both my sister andI have our “original” Terry Leedollsthat we received in the’50′s.
    They were sent to the hospital in the past for repair and most recently new clothing was purchased for them. I purchased a new version of the Terry Lee for my granddaughter and she will inherit my “original” doll one day.
    We are hoping to visit the museumthissummer while on vacation. Thank you for your article.


    • pamela nootz martin says:

      I am so interested in this exibit. My Grandmother Nina Nootz was an employee of the Terri Lee Doll factory and as a little girl I would take my dolls to her to be repaired. I can remember her putting the arms and legs back together with the rubber band. She lived next door to us at 2740 Everett Street. Her husband Christoper A Nootz was a carpenter and built all of the homes on Sheridan Blvd as well as the Supreme Court Chambers at the St. Capitol. He died in 1942 and thus my granmother had o find work and started working at the factory shortely after it opened. I wish I had one of the dolls but the joy I have received from this article and the brown bag program on tv was a treasure for me to enjoy. Pamela Nootz Martin

  6. Ann Falk says:

    I still have my Terri Lee doll that I got when I was at Randolph grade school in Lincoln in the late 1940′s. I hope to get to Lincoln to see the display of the dolls.

    • dbristow says:

      Thanks, everyone, for your comments. We’re pleased that so many people are visiting the exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum. But for those of you who live too far away to visit, let me make another shameless plug for the article in Nebraska History. Written by Exhibits Coordinator Tina Koeppe (who also planned the exhibit), this 20-page article features 27 photos, including many of dolls from different years. While we couldn’t show every doll that’s in the exhibit, we tried to show examples of each kind, as well as photos of the people who made the dolls, promotional materials, etc. To order a copy contact the Landmark Store at the museum. The article itself is fascinating, as it goes into more detail than was possible in the exhibit – it’s quite a tale of innovation, intrigue, and disaster.

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