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Alabama Babies: The Alabama Indestructible Doll Story

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Virginia Davis, Doll Reader

Dolls leave an indestructible memory.

If one crosses the Georgia line into Alabama one can lose an hour in time as the Eastern Time zone changes to Central time. However, as one enters the sleepy little town of Roanoke, Alabama time becomes irrelevant: big churches, family owned businesses, and lots of smiling, friendly folks give a feeling of having stepped back two centuries.

It was over 100 years ago when orphan Verna Pittman accidentally dropped her beautiful bisque doll, and gave it to her artistic neighbor Ella Smith to repair.

Ella poured the head full of plaster, wrapped it with scraps of material ripped from Verna’s petticoat, then covered it with plaster of Paris and repainted the features.

Verna was very pleased with the new doll.

All commercial dolls were made of bisque and imported from Europe at that time. Ella decided children needed dolls they could play with. She used a similar method, as she used to repair Verna’s doll, to construct a doll of her own. She worked on a prototype for a doll for two years, finally succeeding. That was the beginning of the indestructible doll business.

Ella Louise Gauntt was born into an industrious family in Heard County, Georgia in April of 1868. Her father was a Confederate Veteran of the Civil War. He was also an inventor credited with several patents including that of a Coiled spring used to hold bed mattresses.

With artistic parents (her mother painted and her father also wrote poetry) it was natural that Ella began to appreciate art and beautiful things.

When Ella finished High School, she went to La Grange College to study art. She then was offered a position to teach art at Roanoke Normal College in Alabama.

While teaching in Roanoke, Ella met Samuel Swainswright Smith. Smith was a contractor and a carpenter who townspeople nicknamed Bud. Two years later, after they married, Ella had to resign her teaching position, because in the 19th Century, a married woman was not allowed to teach school.

As an unemployed housewife, Ella loved to paint in oils, creating lovely pictures of children and of her favorite travel destinations. Her favorite vacationing spot was Niagara Falls in New York. She liked amateur photography, and often used her photos to encourage others to visit her haunts. Ella collected post cards and did lovely embroidery and fancy lace work.

Ella became known as Miss Ella and was very active in the Methodist Church. When the cornerstone of the new Methodist church was laid in 1906, one of Smith’s dolls was placed inside.

Ella loved to dress flamboyantly in flowing, ankle length dresses with huge decorative hats. The wide-brim hats sported artificial flowers, she had made herself.

She had a house filled with animals, and her favorite pet was a parrot. The parrot could recite scripture, Poems, and sing hymns, and loved to mimic what others were saying.

Miss Ella was often busy when men selling wagon loads of firewood would come by the house and call in the window to inquire if she wanted to buy any firewood. She would call back telling them to put a load out in back. After ordering two or three loads, one day Miss Ella walked into her backyard to discover mountains of firewood. The parrot had ordered her wood.

In 1899, Ella started her doll business. The babies’ head was made of a durable plaster of Paris. Over the head was stretched a fleece lined fabric. She then inserted a willow stick, as a spine, to hold the head onto an oil cloth body. Willow was used so that it would not swell if the doll got wet. Then the hair and face were painted with a waterproof paint. The stuffing for the bodies came from the local cotton gin. Batting was stuffed into the bodies using sticks.

The first dolls were all painted by Miss Ella. But as the business grew, she let other workers whose work she felt admirable paint many of the dolls. The eyes are usually blue or brown and the lips a deep orange. The painted hair suggests pin curls or waves. Hair was applied to some of the dolls. If she knew who the doll was for: she asked the future owner to save the hair from their haircut and she applied it to the doll. At other time she would use sheep’s wool.

The earliest dolls were barefoot showing individual toes. Later models had painted brown or blue shoes which were outlined in deep black. The dolls had applied ears which Miss Ella invented a mold for. The lighter colored complexion is said to be on earlier dolls. The dolls had mitten type hands, although a few models show separated fingers.

The dolls ranged in height from 12 inches to 27 inches although rare 8 inch dolls and 36 inch dolls have been found.

Ella Smith made the first black doll in the South.

She also made boy dolls dressed as boys or they might wear gowns, but they all had the short hairstyle. Boy dolls and black dolls were a commercial risk so fewer of them were made.

The dolls were priced at 75 cents for the 12 inch undressed model to 10 dollars for the 27 inch undressed version. The dressed dolls or the ones with hair sold for $1.15 for the 12 inch models and $12.15 for the ones that were 27 inches.

In 1904, Ella took the doll to the St. Louis Exposition, where she won blue ribbons, in addition to a national reputation and her business boomed.

In September of 1905, Ella Smith received a patent for her doll, but the patent had to be applied for in her husband’s name because women were not allowed to hold patents. However, the stamp on the lower torso or the upper leg of her dolls reads: Mrs.S.S. Smith Manufacture and dealer/The Alabama Indestructible Doll/ROANOKE, ALA.

Miss Ella later obtained a patent in Germany, and Europe became a market for the Alabama Baby. A ceremony was held at the Roanoke factory when one of the dolls was shipped to India to a diplomat.

Over the years Ella would obtain twelve more patents under her own name. One of her most famous inventions was the girdle. Some of her other inventions included: artificial fruit, one-piece infant bands to keep infants navels from protruding, abdominal supports for overweight people and a one-piece beach shoe.

A business woman, who conducted business by carrier pigeons, in her time was the subject of much curiosity. Messages were sent to Atlanta, by pigeon and then, by other pigeons, on up the East Coast.

Her first dolls were made in her home, which was an average southern style home with a wraparound porch. The house was built for Ella by her husband as a wedding gift. When her business grew her husband built a two story doll house/factory out back, where Miss Ella employed twelve workers. Interestingly, all these women were single women who had to work to support themselves on their 75 cents a week salary. The ladies could obtain food and shelter at the local boarding house for 25 cents a week, leaving 50 cents of their weekly salary for other necessities. In a world without electric lights, work was done by kerosene lamp and the sewing machines had foot pedals. But most of the work was done by hand.

On the second floor of the factory was a secret room that no one was allowed to enter, except Miss Ella. Naturally, rumors begin to spread from the factory about what was in that room. Some say that Miss Ella had invented a secret formula that made the dolls indestructible. Others rumored there was secret glue she mixed with the plaster of Paris that made it less porous and stronger. The workers named the room The Goat Room. Miss Ella spent hours in the room, probably designing, but no one can say for sure what she was doing.

Miss Ella loved Christmas, and had Bud construct a large sleigh, and hitched the sleigh to a stuffed oil cloth deer that she made herself. She would fill the sleigh with her dolls, and sit on the porch acting as Santa passing out the dolls to needy children. She gave many dolls to the orphanages in Alabama.

She was a lady who made children happy, but she had no children of her own, so she adopted two. One was a little girl whom she named Macie. It was an unofficial adoption: Macie’s family was on the way to the orphanage with six children, when Miss Ella bumped into them at the train station. The Dixon baby was cradled in its mother’s arms, when Miss Ella reached for the baby and held it close. She told the family she would care for this child but the others were taken to the children’s home. The other adopted child was a boy named Cary, he was her nephew. Perhaps, the boy was never officially adopted, but he lived with her until he became an adult.

As the business grew a larger factory was needed, therefore a brick building was bought across town.

One day dolls were loaded in a truck to take to the new factory to be dressed. One of the dolls fell off and rolled underneath the truck. The truck ran over the doll in the street leaving tire marks and dragging the doll a distance, on the brick paved street. Miss Ella recovered the doll, took a cloth and washed the doll off, declaring the doll good as new. It was placed in a local retail store and sold the same week. Miss Ella stated that if there was any doubt that the dolls were indestructible…that incident should prove it.

As Ella Smith continued to invent, she was considered a woman far ahead of her time. Her dolls were being sold in Sears & Roebucks’ catalogs, while Macy’s and other leading retailers were selling them in their stores.

Two business men in Roanoke, B.O. Driver and W.E. McIntosh, became interested in The Alabama babies. They wanted to become partners in the business and so acted as salesmen to the 1922 Toy Fair. Reports from the fair indicate the dolls did very well and many were sold and hundreds of orders taken.

The men were returning from the fair, when the last coach of the train they were traveling on was derailed and plunged into Camp Creek near Atlanta. Both men were killed and orders for the dolls were not recovered.

The town sustained a loss … an irreparable one, but not a loss such as the one placed on the Roanoke Doll Factory. Miss Ella was grieved, but tired to continue her business until the members of one of the men’s family brought a suit against her, taking the complete doll business.

Miss Ella moved back into her original house, bringing with her only a few dolls, some material and her animals. She continued to feed the pigeons, but no longer sent them on business missions.

Miss Ella could be seen walking aimlessly around town in a long back cape. Her parrot would sit on her shoulder, but he remained silent. Miss Ella ate heavily and was diagnosed with diabetes and a kidney disease. She lived for only ten more years, dying on April 22, 1932.

Samuel lived on many years and ran a hotel in Roanoke. Macie married and moved to Florida, while Cary remained in Roanoke until his death.

When Miss Ella died her family burned all of her remaining dolls and molds. The two story doll house known as the first factory was turned into apartments and the ironwork was decorated with doll heads that were waiting for bodies. Some adults and children that were owners of the dolls even buried the dolls.

Many lovers of the dolls wrapped then in cloth and stored them away in trunks and closets. Lots of the dolls were gone, because in those days when a child had a contagious disease: all the child’s bedding, clothes, and toys played with during the illness were burned. One of the last patents Miss Ella received was for a protective slip cover that could be placed over the doll and later burned when a sick child recovered. The cover would have kept the doll from being destroyed, but records indicate that these slip-covers were not produced.

After 1932, little was heard about Miss Ella’s babies. Then as doll collecting became popular, people began looking for the dolls. The dolls became known as the exclusively as Alabama Babies instead of Miss Ella’s Babies or The Roanoke Dolls. The dolls began to easily claim $150 per inch, and rare models and black dolls command between $15,000 and $25,000 today.

Over the years, the sleepy little town of Roanoke, Alabama mostly forgot Miss Ella, except for a few enthusiasts who personally cleaned her grave and installed her marker.

Then Mayor Ziglar began her term office in 1992, and pushed for an Ella Smith Day. She had plans for a new museum honoring the doll maker.

One of the largest collectors of the doll is Jacquelyn Shafer from St. Petersburg, Florida. The former Alabama native owns eighteen of the dolls and has repaired many more of them. She is an authority on the dolls and says she can identify the ones Miss Ella painted herself. She began collecting the dolls when a dealer offered her a basket of poor conditioned Alabama Babies in exchange for work she had done repairing the dealer’s dolls. Realizing the dolls were a part of her heritage, she began researching their history. She went to St. Augustine and Met Macie, Ella’s adopted daughter, the two became friends. After Macie’s death, Shafer still researched and collected the dolls.

Another authority, on the dolls and Miss Ella, is Frank Fetner who planted a dogwood tree on Miss Ella’s grave and raised $500 to place a maker on her grave which reads: Ella Smith, Inventor of the Alabama Indestructible doll, made from 1899-1932. Fetner has large scrapbooks on Miss Ella and is very interested in anything connected with the doll. His interest began when he played with two of the dolls in a church nursery. He is the owner of those dolls today.

Fetner worked to establish the Ella Smith museum. April being the month that Ella Smith was born and died, every April an Ella Smith Day will be held in Roanoke. Collectors are urged to bring their Alabama Babies to meet with other collectors, and see the town that a doll built.

No one knows exactly how many dolls were produced, but many collectors would like to know where the indestructible dolls are today.

Ella Smith, a frustrated artist, far ahead of her time, put the town of Roanoke on the map, its women to work and gave it a legacy. Her indestructible dolls still have rosy cheeks, smiles in their painted eyes, secrets in their molded ears, and are proudly posed on the Alabama Baby postage stamp.

Insert from Miss Ella Smith’s catalog reads: My dolls are made from the best of goods. No dyes are used and they are all carefully handmade and can be washed like children. No cheap stuff used in the makeup of these dolls. They do not break from being dropped or thrown about. They have been tested by five years use. When they become worn and need new paint, they may be sent back to the shop and made look like new again for a very small sum. Any of these dolls maybe provided with wigs, but most people like painted heads-they look neat- wigs become matted and tangled; but they may be taken off and the heads painted. These dolls are painted to represent all races of people. We try to please all people as nearly as we can. We want our dolls to give perfect satisfaction.

SIDEBAR:

On July 29TH 1997 dozens of devoted Ella Smith fans made a pilgrimage to Roanoke Alabama for the cancelling of the first Alabama Baby postage stamps.

The hot temperatures did not discourage the lines at the post office or the enthusiasm of the town Mayor Betty Ziglar, who rushed about the town like a tiny hummingbird welcoming guests and relating the story of the town’s most famous citizen. Sharon Sorrels painted the doll on the cancellation stamp from a doll owned by her mother. Four generations of one family and guest from Florida and Puerto Rico were present. The Mayor was proud to announce that she received several checks to start the museum honoring Ella Smith and her doll.

The Dynamic Group bought some of the original Alabama babies far a large sum. The dolls were used as prototypes to reproduce the Alabama baby. That doll was first sold on the Home Shopping Network in November of 1998, but is out of production, and is also considered as a collectible today.

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