A Doll’s Life

Winterthur Museum, Delaware 

Legacy of Henry Francis du Pont, American 1880-1969



Doll manufactured by Albert Bruckner’s Sons, NY, c. 1920’s, cotton and ink. 

Exhibited at Winterthur in 2020/2021 in the wake of a commitment to increase research into and exhibition of African American history after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, MN




Winterthur’s explanatory note on this doll:


.…”this cloth doll was a child’s toy, flipped one way to represent a Black female and the other way to show a white*  girl. 


“These ‘topsy-turvy’ dolls first appeared as home-made creations in the early 1800s but continue to be mass-produced and sold as problematic tourist items and collectibles to the present day. 


“The meaning behind these dolls is highly debated.  Were they playthings of oppression or objects of resistance?” 




Six things differentiate the two sides of this doll.

The colour of their ‘skin’ is different;

the manner of their head scarves is different;

the pattern of their cloth dresses is different;

their shared skirt is made of the pattern of only one of their dresses;

their eyes are not the same colour. 

The dolls are looking in different directions. 


Nothing racially volatile here.


The doll was a toy when it was first made by people in their homes.

Manufactured on a commercial basis, the doll has been catapulted into the discussion about North American racism.




Playthings of oppression




Oppression, acrylic on canvas, 1984. 

Luis Cruz Azaceta, born Havana, Cuba, 1942.  Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington



Objects of resistance


Revolutionary, 1972, acrylic paint and mixed media on canvas. 

 Wadsworth Jarrell, American born 1971.   On display at the Brooklyn Museum, NY in 2018/19




Topsy-turvy * even unto the (politically correct) capitalization of the B of Black but not the w of white.



Hijacked away from their straightforward dollness,


is the black doll rolling her eyes? 

and the expression in the eyes of the white doll?


It is certainly not boundless joy at this hijack….