By Francesca, Jonathan, Natalie, Anthony, and Alexis
While children are filled with wonder and curiosity, most of the time their toys have a hidden history to tell, and some are quite jarring. One doll that captures the joy of childhood and a dark history is the topsy turvy doll—a reversible, two-sided, doll featuring two characters joined at the hip. This doll has a much darker past, directly tied to one of the worst aspects of American history: slavery.
The topsy turvy doll originally featured the figure of a black girl and white girl on the opposite side. In 1852, the first known version of the doll emerged as the Topsy and Eva doll, which was based on the characters Topsy and Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Topsy—featured briefly in the novel—was immortalized as the stereotypical image of an ignorant slave girl who was transformed only with the help of her master’s daughter, Eva.
Enslaved mothers sometimes gave these dolls to their daughters on southern plantations to help them learn child care, so that they could eventually care for their own children (represented by the black doll) and the white children who owned them (represented by the white doll). As children, it is natural for us to internalize most of what we hear and what we are taught, which made the use of this doll damaging to generations of American families. On the flipside, to wealthy whites and the families of slaveholders, the doll taught children that no matter how economically successful an African American became they could not be equal because they were born less than. Not only was it a method of reminding them of their innate and enduring inferior position in society. Moreover, “…more than a doll—it [was] a symbol of [white] power.”
Though slavery ended with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, the doll’s place in African American households remained important. Many domestic slaves became low paid domestic servants and many African American girls continued to raise their employer’s children. This economic disparity between white and black that ensured a disproportionate number of African Americans remained in low-paying, unskilled jobs endured well into the 20th century and continues to exist today.
Over time, the racial connotations of the topsy turvy doll fell out of popularity with the introduction of new children’s characters. Homemade dolls were slowly replaced by factory-produced toys from department stores by the early 1900s. Still, some of the colorful advertising remained centered on the doll’s slave background, with one company creating a slogan, “Turn me up and turn me back, first I’m white, and then I’m black,” for a 1901 advertising campaign.
Five decades later, stores such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, and Bruckner revitalized the doll by basing their versions off of popular characters, such as those from the story of Red Riding Hood including the wolf, grandmother, and Red herself. The emergence of successful children’s movies, especially Disney’s, increased the number of marketable characters considerably overnight. The simplicity of the stories in many Disney movies directly appealed to the dual nature of the dolls, pitting heroes against their foes and featuring both film’s leading duo. The colorful design of the characters also lent themselves well to dolls and the popularity of the topsy turvy doll sored, completely forgetting its background in slavery.
Many of us remember playing with these dolls as children and do not actually know the winding road that the doll took to get to us. Like most history, the story of the topsy turvy doll conceals a topsy turvy past that still impacts us today.
For further insight into the impact of dolls and African American culture in the United States on children, please watch this video showing the infamous Doll Test” first created by civil rights activists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s: