Madame Alexander Dolls and the Collectors Who Love Them
An Interview with Diane McCarthy, former President of the Madame Alexander Doll Club
Dolls remain a popular collecting category, with premier antique, vintage, and contemporary examples topping the wish lists of enthusiasts globally. Each July, the United Federation of Doll Clubs (UFDC), a 5013C organization at the forefront of doll research, education, conservation, and appreciation, holds its yearly convention. This gathering attracts attendees from every continent and is considered to be the premier annual happening in the doll collecting world. This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, this celebration is being held online from July 22-24th to keep everyone safe and healthy. You can learn more about this free virtual celebration here.
Perhaps the best known American brand of dolls are those designed and manufactured by Madame Alexander. Fine examples from the Madame Alexander doll catalog are always well represented at UFDC annual events. To learn more about these playthings and collectibles – and what makes them so interesting from the collectors, historical, and design perspectives – Auction Daily spoke to Diane McCarthy, former President of the Madame Alexander Doll Club.
Auction Daily: Who was Madame Alexander, and when and why did she start a doll company?
Diane McCarthy: Madame Alexander was born Bertha Alexander on March 9, 1895. When she got older, she changed it to Beatrice, which she felt was more elegant. Her parents immigrated from Russia, and her father owned a doll hospital on New York’s Lower East Side. Beatrice and her father shared a passion for doll making and repairing.
During World War I, there was an embargo on German goods, including dolls, which impacted the family business. Beatrice and her sisters got together to create dolls they could sell, would not break, and use available materials. Early models included a nurse and a baby doll. She would make a sample doll, and her sisters would copy it. While they worked, Beatrice would offer encouragement and check their work. This personal approach with high standards was a style she maintained throughout her career.
In 1923, Beatrice decided to start her own company with $1,600 in startup money. She hired workers from her neighborhood. Over time, she was able to move to a studio in downtown Manhattan. Her time was divided between conceiving doll ideas, developing shop accounts, and sewing. This was when she learned to hold her own with male shop owners looking to purchase her dolls. FAO Schwarz was one of the first retailers to place orders with her.
Auction Daily: How personally involved was Beatrice Alexander in growing the company’s brand, business, and reputation?
McCarthy: Madame was “hands-on” in all aspects of her business for the 75 years she owned the company. However, she was savvy enough to know she could not do it all. She convinced her husband, Philip, to quit his job and join her company. Philip dealt with the unions, managed stock, payroll, and other company logistics and operations.
Madame was involved in product development and focused on popular culture for ideas. For example, she obtained a trademark for an Alice in Wonderland doll and made two versions, one which she designed. When the movie Little Women came out in 1933, she introduced a set of four dolls at the same time. After missing out on the rights to make a Shirley Temple doll, Madame secured a license to produce the Dionne Quintets. She decided to move quickly on Scarlett O’Hara after reading Gone With the Wind before the movie was released in 1937. She was also enamored with Princess Elizabeth and made a special doll to commemorate her father’s coronation.
She was also involved in production and engineering. After World War II, the company started to develop a durable, hard plastic doll. It was important to Madame that her dolls were well-made and virtually unbreakable, as she felt dolls were meant to be played with. Using new technologies from DuPont, she was able to update her manufacturing so that the company could use one face mold to create an infinite number of different looks. What made these dolls so special were their unique costumes, high-end fabrics and trims, detailed painting, and accessories. Over time, she earned the Gold Medal from the Fashion Academy in 1951. She would win it three more times in the 1950s. This attention to detail was passed on to generations of designers and factory workers. The company motto became “Love is in the Details” and is still printed on the doll hang tags today.
Auction Daily: How are Madame Alexander dolls branded? Has that changed over time?
McCarthy: This varied a lot over time. The earliest cloth dolls had no body markings, but one article of their clothing had a cloth tag in one seam. When the dolls began to be made in composition, there were a variety of branding systems used. Initially, there was a plus sign and number to reflect the height of the doll, or the name of the sculpt, and “Alexander,” in addition to the cloth tags in the garments. Other dolls had “MME Alexander” on the back of the doll, or no doll body markings but branded garment tags. Some of the garment tags would have the name of the doll, like “Alice in Wonderland,” while others just said “Alexander.”
In the 1950s, with the production of 8″ dolls, the back marking was simply “ALEX.” The tags said “Alexanderkins.” There were also wrist hang tags in the 1950s. When the first Storybook and International dolls came out in the early 1960s, they all had special gold wrist tags with their name on one side and “by Madame Alexander” on the other.
Around 2005, when the company updated its molds, the marking was changed to just “2005 Alexander.” Garment tags and wrist tags included the name of the doll, as well as “Madame Alexander New York.” If the doll was a limited edition for a specific collector event, that was sometimes noted as well. However, the Alexander branding can’t be called absolute. There are and were always exceptions.
Auction Daily: Tell us about the Madame Alexander doll club. Does the club have an annual collector’s event?
McCarthy: The Madame Alexander Doll Club was founded in 1961 by Margaret Winson as The Madame Alexander Fan Club. It was more or less a pen pal sort of club, with members exchanging information by letter. Permission was granted in November 1961 to use the name Madame Alexander by the company so that is when the club became official.
The first Madame Alexander Fan Club Convention was held in August 1983 in Merrillville, Indiana. There were around 600 club members at that time. The Madame Alexander Fan Club became the Madame Alexander Doll Club Inc. in December 1985. Over the years, there have been regional events called Symposiums, which later became Premieres, to coincide with the doll line introduction during Toy Fair. Today, there are also the Fall Friendship Luncheons held in a variety of locations around the country annually in October. Premiere is still held in Fort Lee, New Jersey in February, and the annual convention, held in different locations around the country each year, is usually in June. Conventions and the Premiere have break-out doll events, workshops, seminars, a competition room, saleroom, raffles, and a special display. The annual club business meeting is also held during the convention.
Auction Daily: And in terms of rarities, what are the most collectible Madame Alexander items today, and what makes them so desirable?
McCarthy: This is a difficult question to narrow down as you can ask any two collectors, and you will get a different answer from each. And it is challenging to say how much do Madame Alexander dolls cost, as this is tied to so many related factors. In general terms, the dolls that are older, such as the cloth and composition dolls, are harder to get in mint condition. Dolls made in limited numbers or when Madame won her Fashion Academy Gold Medals are all considered desirable. These dolls all had ornate painting and costume design, and few were made.
There are other favorites as well from the Madame Alexander doll catalog. These include cloth dolls like Little Women, Dionne Quintets, and Alice in Wonderland, along with the composition versions of the same. One collector said if her house were burning down, the first thing she would grab would be the 8″ Bible Series made in 1954. This is an extremely rare set, and most collectors would be thrilled with one doll from it. There are also more recent “must-haves” such as the Cissy Forever Darling Bride from 1954, or the extremely rare Cissy in the Green Gown from 1958. This was an exclusive edition and not in a company catalog. And, of course, some collectors prefer some of the more modern collections, including the History of Fashion collection, which was produced from 2005 through 2015 and was reminiscent of the attention to detail used by Madame in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Even if one does not collect a certain type of vintage Madame Alexander, there is still an appreciation of seeing a doll made by Madame’s company that is older than you! Her focus on details and high quality has stood the test of time.
UPDATE, MARCH 2021: Good news! It looks like 2021 will be a better year for live doll gatherings with the availability of vaccinations and a better understanding of public health safety measures associated with COVID-19. The United Federation of Dolls Clubs is holding its 72nd annual convention on July 19-23rd, 2021, in Baltimore, MD. As always, Madame Alexander dolls will be a main category of study throughout the event’s salesroom, lectures, seminars, meal events, and competitive exhibits. Also on the horizon – and sure to feature Madame Alexander dolls – is the Ohio National Doll Show, to be held on October 2-3rd, 2021, in Wilmington, OH.
Despite the challenges presented by 2020, premier Madame Alexander dolls continued to catch the eye – and pocketbooks – of collectors across the globe at auction. Theriault’s Trudy Butler auction on August 1st, 2020, featured an important collection of early and rare Madame Alexander dolls – with several finding new homes at a whopping $17,000 each – including a remarkable “Ballet Des Fleurs” portrait doll from the Mystery Series of 1951! A rare, c. 1937 composition model of Princess Elizabeth by Madame Alexander at Frasher’s Doll Auctions of Oak Grove, MO, was estimated at $300-500 and traded hands at $2,700. This sale, held on November 14th, 2020, also featured a c. 1940 composition Madame Alexander Wendy Ann doll in its original box which was estimated at $400-500 and made $2,160. Collectors also had the opportunity to bid on a c. 1935 Madame Alexander composition Jane Withers doll, which sold for $2,040 – over five times its low pre-auction estimate!
Want to learn more from category experts? Check out Auction Daily’s recent interview with David Rago of Rago Arts and Auction of Lambertville, NJ, on the state of the decorative arts market.