Fabric with a hidden history

This afternoon we were looking at embroidered items made by prisoners of war. Items with embroidered names to mark people who were there. Who knew the outcome of a prisoners life, whether they would survive and if it came to it, would anyone know what happened.

An embroidered cloth with names on might seem insignificant, but I imagine the slow steady work of stitching your name in secret acted as a defiant stand. Not a number in prison costume, but a name, someone who was there. Unlike a name written in a register that can be easily erased, embroidered names are hard to remove.

Fabric has often played an important part in history, especially hidden history or the history of hiding things.

1. Nina and Lucy Ann are two Civil war-era dolls at the Museum of the Confederacy in Ricmond.

The dolls had been given to the museum with the story that they had been used to smuggle drugs and other vital medical supplies past the blockades and to the Southern troops. In 2010 x-rays of the dolls confirmed cavities in the head and upper bodies large enough to smuggle drugs.

It was believed soldiers wouldn’t think about checking childrens toys for contraband.

Nina, the doll in the white dress has a head made from paper mache which was then covered in varnish. The head is attached to the body with cotton ties for easy removal.

The doll is dated from 1858, made in Philadelphia by Ludwig Greiner.

According to the story she was carried in the arms of the neice of General James Patterson across the blockades.

Lucy Ann has a similar story of being carried over the blockades. She was most likely made in Germany or England and sold cheaply at English markets. Her head is paper mache covered in wax, her lower arms made from kid leather to represent long gloves.

The hair was added to the doll be a slit in the head, but the x-ray showed a larger hole where drugs could be inserted. The hole was then hidden by the bonnet.

Using toys to smuggle items into other countries is still tried today. Mickey Mouse has been caught hiding a gun and Mr Potato head had been found with pills in his stomach and even Elmo has been used as a mule.

2. The Topsy-Turvy doll

I was given a hand made topsy turvy doll when I was very small, about 5 or 6, which makes her (cough, splutter) year old! Lets just say she’s old.

I remember getting her from a craft fair in Leeds and taking her to see the pantomine at Christmas in the Leeds Variety theatre. Little me, watching the Cinderella pantomine, with my Cinderella doll, and being chosen to go up on stage to meet Cinderella herself.

She’s old, one arm is lose, her hair needs fixing and her hem is torn. Maybe I should fix her, I did try when I was younger; I used nail polish to paint a smile on her face.

I’ve seen a few topsy turvy dolls over the years, mostly Cinderella or little red riding hood, however it was only recently I discovered the origins of the dolls.

The first dolls were found in America prior to the Civil War and had a black slave doll on one side with a white masters child or mistress of the house on the other. There are many beliefs in why one doll was hidden. Some believe it was forbidden for a black child to have a black child. The white doll could be shown when the master was around and the black doll revealed in secret. The alternative is that the dolls belonged to white children with the black doll used as a maid.

Others believe the dolls represented the African-American womans life, taking care of the white visible child, while her own black child remained hidden at home.

1) Daily Mail Article on Lucy Ann and Nina. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1324499/Civil-War-ear-dolls-X-rayed-bid-prove-secret-role.html

2) The American Civil War Museum where the dolls are kept.  https://acwm.org

3) USA Drug Enforcement Agency website talks about modern drug smuggling. http://www.dea.gov/pubs/states/newsrel/denver102506.html

4) Image of black/white doll. http://blackdollcollecting.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/topsy-turvy-aka-topsy-turvey-double.html

Published by bettyvirago

Betty Virago is an award winning textile designer. Based in Yorkshire, England, and known for her Northern Folk dolls and the Quilts of Hope project.

2 thoughts on “Fabric with a hidden history

  1. I remember going to see pantomimes at Leeds Varieties! I have seen the topsy turvy dolls on eBay and wondered about the history of them. I am a trainee minister and can see a sermon brewing around one. Thank you.

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