Dolls In The Dow House

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Spring 2007,
Spring 2007
Original Images:



Author: Claire Shefler

Ypsilanti is a bustling college town located in southeastern Michigan, along the Huron River.

Long ago, this area was the camping and burial grounds for several Native American tribes. In 1809, Gabriel Godfroy, a Frenchman, established an Indian trading post on the west bank of the river. Fourteen years later, Major Benjamin Woodruff and his companions from Sandusky, Ohio, founded a settlement on the east bank of the river. In 1825, the area was platted by Judge Augustus Woodward, William Harwood and John Stewart. Judge Woodward named this community Ypsilanti in honor of General Demetrius Ypsilanti, a brave hero in the Greek War of Independence. Today, Ypsilanti is an industrial center and the home of Eastern Michigan University, the oldest teachers' college west of Albany, New York.

In 1860, Asa Dow, a wealthy Chicago businessman, came to town to join his friend, Daniel Quirk, in several businesses. On a bluff, high above the river, Mr. Dow built an elegant 12-room Italianate mansion featuring four ornate fireplaces, high ceilings, hardwood floors and a handsome winding staircase. He and his wife, Minerva, enjoyed living in this magnificent brick showplace for a short period of time. She died in 1864, and he returned to Chicago. Over the years, several prominent families have had the privilege of living in the Dow house. In 1966, it was sold to the city, and four years later it was offered to the Ypsilanti Historical Society for use as a museum. Visitors to this splendid museum are given a glimpse of what life was like in Ypsilanti during the 19th century.

An amazing number of local residents have generously donated their treasures, trinkets and heirlooms to the museum. Members of the historical society have used their time and talents to arrange these thoughtful gifts in attractive and educational exhibits. On the main floor, collections of Victorian furniture and accessories are on display in the parlor, dining room and kitchen. Another main-floor room houses a collection of Native American artifacts and a collection of antique and vintage toys, which includes a homemade Noah's ark with numerous wooden animals, a small lithographed paper-on-wood doll house, a painted green toy cupboard and a homemade cradle holding a 1950's drink-and-wet baby doll with a hard plastic head featuring painted brown hair, an open mouth, tear ducts and blue sleep eyes.

In the parlor, a life-size companion doll is modeling an early 20th-century child's dress, that is made of white wool and has a dropped-waist, a pleated skirt, navy-blue arm bands and pearl buttons down the front. The doll's white stockings and white vinyl Mary Jane shoes are original. She has rigid vinyl limbs and a soft vinyl head featuring blue sleep eyes, pale-pink lips and blushing cheeks. A curly ash-blonde wig covers her rooted brown hair. She was made by the Allied Eastern doll company, and she appeared in the 1960 Aldens catalog as Jodi Lynn. The following year she appeared in the catalog as Honey Mate or Walking Wendy with a buggy.

Several dolls are keeping company in the well-furnished kitchen. Seated in an antique highchair is a 1969 Effanbee baby doll. Ths all-vinyl doll has rooted blonde curls, blue sleep eyes and soft-pink lips. She looks cute dressed in her original pink overalls and white blouse with puffy sleeves. A 19th-century Boston rocker is holding a family of African-American rag dolls and a pair of Amish rag dolls that are homemade. A commercially-made composition doll is resting in a Victorian child's chair. This well-loved doll has blue sleep eyes, a bright red mouth showing teeth and a strawberry-blonde mohair wig. All of these dolls and a few more fabric dolls loom cozy sitting in the antiquated kitchen.

At the top of the tall staircase, a grand hallway leads from the front of the house to the back of the house. It is lined with antique cabinets that showcase collections of antique beaded purses, fans and hand-painted French dishes. Some of the former bedrooms are used to exhibit collections of vintage clothing, musical instruments and tools. One of the front bedrooms is completely furnished with beautiful Victorian furniture and linens.

A unique and well-made boudoir doll, dating from the 1920's, is posing in the lovely bedroom. She is an attractive lady doll with a molded fabric head and a stuffed fabric torso and limbs. Her face has painted reddish-orange lips, one-stroke eyebrows and long silk eyelashes. Her head is crowned with a platinum-blonde mohair wig styled in solf curls and waves. She is costumed in a frilly white organdy gown elaborately adorned with tiers of ruffles trimmed with pink piping. A silver bar pin adorns the bodies of her fancy gown, and pink beads encircle her neck. This display doll, which is in excellent condition, adds a touch of glamour to the old-fashioned bedroom.

At the far end of the corridor, there is a wonderful children's room beautifully decorated and furnished with marvelous furniture and playthings dating from the 1860's to the 1960's. A wide variety of precious dolls made of fabric, china, bisque, composition and vinyl populate this amazing room. They are neatly displayed with rare pieces of furniture and collections of antique doll clothes, quilts and dishes. All of these fabulous treasures are preserved behind a wall of glass.

Five quaint china head dolls, clad in their original apparel, reside in this impressive room. Two of these beauties' are sitting in the back of the room, on a full-size settee, dating back to the late 1800's. The dolls have flat-top hairdos, and they date back to the time of the Civil War. One china head doll is standing beside a bisque head doll, in front of a walnut cupboard, which is overflowing with a collection of antique garments made for dolls. An 1880's china head doll, with short curly hair, is posing on a circa 1915 Mission-style settle bench, that was made for dolls. The fifth china head doll is having a tea party with a bisque head doll. They are resting on children's chairs. All of these antiques are in very good condition.

Six bisque headed dolls dwell in the children's room. Dating from near the turn of the 20th-century, these girl dolls have pretty “dolly faces” featuring sleep eyes, open mouths and full cheeks. They appear to be wearing their original wigs and costumes, but some of them have new hats and hair ribbons. Two of these fine dolls are posing near the glass wall. One is riding in a fancy wicker and wood doll's pram dating from the late 1800's. This old-fashioned girl doll has big blue eyes, softly painted pink cheeks, a smiling mouth showing teeth and long honey-blonde hair with straight bangs. She looks sweet dressed in her original dark-printed maroon frock and black leather high-top shoes. Seated nearby, on a child's chair, is a blue-eyed doll with brightly colored cheeks a red mouth and dark brown hair piled on of her head. She is nicely costumed in her original white organdy and lace dress accented with a pink satin sash. A matching pink bow adorns her hair. Long black stockings and white leather high button shoes complete her costume. All of the bisque dolls are well-dressed and very pretty.

From 1889 until the 1930's, Martha Jenks Chase, the wife of a prominent physician, designed and produced unique cloth dolls in her own company, located in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The dolls' heads were made of stockinet fabric stretched over molded face masks; and their skin colors, features and hair-dos were painted with oil-based paints. Their bodies were made of sateen fabric. These artistic dolls were sold dressed and undressed. They represented babies, children, adults and characters from “Alice in Wonderland.” African-American dolls were produced with distinctly ethnic features. In 1911 Mrs. Chase introduced the Chase Hospital Lady. This well-proportioned and life-size mannequinn was designed to help teach student nurses how to care for adult patients. In 1913 she introduced the Chase Hospital Baby to help teach the students how to care for babies. Today, the Chase dolls are prized by collectors.

The museum proudly displays two Chase dolls inside the Children's room. One is a life-size baby doll with dark blonde hair. She looks adorable dressed in an exquisite christening gown and matching bonnet. The other doll, which is very rare, is a life-sized Chase Hospital Lady, who is posing as a grandmother. She is wearing a gray curly wig, golden spectacles, a long black taffeta skirt and a frilly white blouse. Seated on a late 1800's platform rocker, she is reading a story to the doll children, who are sitting beside her.

The children's room houses a wide variety of toys designed for boys. Numerous cast-iron toys such as circus wagons, a soft-drink wagon and fire fighting equipment line the shelves of an antique bookcase. A collection of Native American figures are displayed in a large built-in cabinet. A metal pick-up truck, stuffed animals, a ring toss game, a marble game and baseball equipment are scattered on the floor. Surprisingly, many of these vintage toys look brand-new.

Throughout the last fifty years, the Michigan Historical Commission and the Michigan Department of State's Michigan Historical Center have set up more than 1300 official historical markers that tell the intriguing stories of Michigan's past. One of these official green and gold markers stands proudly in front of the Ypsilanti Historical Museum. It tells the rich history of Ypsilanti. A visit inside the museum brings this history to life. History buffs find this museum fascinating. Doll lovers find it enchanting. Members of the historical society welcome visitors to the museum on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. The museum is located at 220 North Huron Street, Ypsilanti, Michigan 48197.