Ohio women carry on art form of making and restoring dolls


SYLVANIA, Ohio (AP) — When Sharon Heuberger was a little girl, she was fascinated by the few dolls she and her sisters possessed.

“When I was a child during the Great Depression, there were four of us girls, and we didn’t have a lot of toys, but we got a doll for Christmas every year until the third grade, and that year we got one with hair,” the 77-year-old Sylvania resident recalled.

Ms. Heuberger and her sisters frequently eyed a Victorian dollhouse in a store window on Detroit Avenue. Their parents saved up and gave it to them as a gift one year.

“The furniture was made out of metal and painted. The toilet had a little handle that flushed. The kitchen cupboards had handles that opened,” Ms. Heuberger said, noting that her father later gave it to a family friend in need. “It was fabulous, and if we had it today, it would be worth a lot.”

Although those childhood memories today are strong, it would be decades before Ms. Heuberger again became enchanted with dolls. That enchantment eventually morphed into a life passion of making and restoring antique dolls, an art form local collectors say appears to be dying with the generation.

“I was passing by a doll shop (in the early 1980s), and I saw a doll baby in the window and it looked real. It intrigued me,” she said.

She entered the store, the now-shuttered Penelope’s Doll Chest in Sylvania, and asked if she could buy it.

“I wanted it. It was expensive. It was too much, but I thought, ‘I could make that,’ ” she recalled. “(The shop owner) said, ‘Oh no, you can’t make that one, it would have to be something simpler.’ “

Penelope’s offered dollmaking classes, and Ms. Heuberger joined in. She made her first doll, stuffing a music box inside her that when wound plays the melody “We’ve Only Just Begun.”

She never looked back.

Ms. Heuberger took more classes and became certified in dollmaking and restoration. She has been collecting, repairing, and creating reproductions of dolls for more than 30 years, and while she still does repairs for clients, just last year she gave up the dollmaking classes she offered in her studio garage to one of her students, Bev Ostermyer of Temperance.

Ms. Ostermyer, 66, took classes at Penelope’s as well and then started perfecting her craft under Ms. Heuberger in about 2007. She now hosts the classes at her home.

Her garage is half creative space where weekly classes are held and half storage closet for her inspirations. It is stacked with molds of all sizes that make doll heads, legs, arms, and torsos. She’s collected them from Ms. Heuberger and a half-dozen others retiring from the dollmaking business.

“We probably have about 200 different dolls we can make,” she said. “I’ve been collecting all of this with it being my retirement goal.”

Fashion dollmaking dates back to the 13th century, when individuals fashioned figures out of clay and wood in Germany and France. Composition dolls, made of wood fibers, glue, and other materials and pressed into molds, were popular in the 19th century and into the 20th century, Ms. Heuberger said. They were replaced in the industrial age with dolls made from porcelain and attached to bodies made with leather or cloth.

Soon after, creators fashioned the entire doll from porcelain, also known as bisque, by pouring the dust into molds, sanding down seams and blemishes, repeated painting and firing, and stringing legs and arms to a torso … It’s a process used by Heuberger, Ostermyer, and other dollmakers today.

Some of the more popular dolls at the turn of the century included those fashioned in Germany by Armand Marseille and Ernst Heubach. Fashion dolls also started emerging in France; a Bru doll or a bisque doll made by the Jumeau doll company was something to be treasured.

Ms. Heuberger said a reproduction takes about two weeks from start to finish and sometimes involves up to six firings, with kiln temperatures reaching up to 2,200 degrees, in between intricate painting of facial features. Wigs and clothing complete the doll.

Reproductions usually sell for a lower price of between $15 to $100 and are valued much less than original antiques, which Ms. Heuberger said could go for as much as a couple thousand dollars, depending on their condition. She makes reproductions for people who might want an original but either can’t find it or can’t afford it.

“When you sell, you definitely have to tell everyone it is a reproduction, but I do try to match as closely as possible,” Ms. Heuberger said. “There’s no way it’s going to match (perfectly), no way. But to get it as close as possible is my goal.”

Like Ms. Heuberger, Whitehouse resident Melinda Hoskins’ love of doll creation and restoration was also happenstance.

She was in her 40s when she inherited her mother’s childhood dolls, many that were gifted to her mother from a great-aunt who owned an ocean-side boarding house in Baltimore and received dolls from seamen who brought them from Europe.

The dolls had been neglected in her grandmother’s home for decades. Some had sustained water damage.

“They were pretty beat up,” she said.

Ms. Hoskins, now 62, started researching doll restoration and set to work repairing and replacing parts on the first of several of her mother’s dolls. This one was a composition doll whose legs had deteriorated after sustaining water damage. She also restored an antique china doll from her grandmother’s childhood.

She studied the different time periods to know the differences between painting china dolls with a high-gloss paint and using enamel paint on the composition dolls. She makes doll clothing using lace and other materials passed down from family members.

Shelves of dolls in a room in her home are a mix of dolls she made or restored and some she purchased at shows for her collection. She also does repairs and restorations, gravitating toward the Victorian period.

“During that time it was all about detail. Everything was done in such detail,” Ms. Hoskins said. “I do some modern dolls, but what seems to be more popular is the Victorian (era), because it’s fussy, it’s pretty.”

Purchasing an antique doll is often a nostalgic decision.

“Most people when they go to a show, they remember their grandmother or their mother had a china doll, so they buy it,” Ms. Hoskins said. “It’s a keepsake to remember their grandmother or grandparent.”

In today’s computer age, the pool of dollmakers and collectors is getting older, but dollmaker Mary Opaczewski, 70, of Toledo, is optimistic that all is not lost.

“If you look, almost every craft cycles,” she said. “Look at needlework; it wasn’t popular for a long time, and then you find a piece done by your mother.”

True to her word, Ms. Heuberger eventually made a reproduction of the doll she saw in the window of Penelope’s so many years ago. It still lays today in a cradle in her home, wrapped in a dressing gown her husband, Dale Heuberger, wore as an infant.

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Information from: The Blade, http://www.toledoblade.com/