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).
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.
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