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Betsy McCall Doll Patterns Opened New Worlds

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Within the pages of McCall's magazine, little Betsy McCall experienced numerous adventures, sharing them with girls like Cynthia.
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Introducing Betsy McCall.
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Betsy McCall goes to the beach.
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Betsy McCall goes to the beach yet again.
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Betsy McCall goes to the zoo.
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Betsy McCall goes to the country.
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Betsy McCall goes to the country.

When I was 6, my family’s home was in the middle of a farm in the middle of Missouri in the middle of the United States. Many people might have thought we lived in the middle of nowhere.

On Halloween of 1957, I was proudly dressed as a bumblebee. My sister, who was a mere 13 months younger, dressed as a clown. Since we lived in a rural area, there weren’t many houses around, so pickings that year were going to be slim at best. We were as likely to get fruit, homemade honey or toothbrushes as we were candy.

There was one house where, although the lights were on, no one answered our first or even our second knock. Just as we were about to walk away, a woman wearing a suit and high heels opened the door. She looked surprised to see us.

“Trick or Treat!” we gamely shouted, keeping our fingers crossed in hopes that she had candy and not an apple.

“Oh, my, is it Halloween?” she asked, looking very distressed.

My hopes plummeted. Not only would we not get candy, we probably wouldn’t even get fruit. She looked at my mother, who was walking with us that night.

“Please,” the woman beckoned, “come in. I’m sure I have something for the girls.”

We went in, grudgingly because we didn’t want to waste valuable candy-collecting time with someone who didn’t even know it was Halloween. She even offered Mom coffee. She asked us to wait in the kitchen, while Mom sipped her coffee. The woman re-entered the kitchen with a huge stack of magazines.

She opened one and said “Voila!” I’d never heard that word before, but I tucked it away to use myself someday; it sounded exciting. I knew this woman must be rich, since she lived in this large house with no children, wore a suit, used fancy words and had lots of magazines. I wanted to be just like her.

She pulled a page out of the magazine and handed it to me. On the page was the most wonderful paper doll I had ever seen. “It’s a Betsy McCall paper doll,” she told me. “You see, there’s a story about her and her outfits for the month. You cut them out and dress her up. You can even act out the story. I have dozens of them! They come in each of these magazines.” She looked anxiously at us, as if it were important that we liked her gift.

I looked at Mom, wondering if this was OK. She nodded her head, smiling. I think Mom knew what was coming.

The woman started ripping pages out of all the magazines, doling them out between my sister and me; March for me, April for my sister, May for me, June for my sister. Soon, we were holding a stack of magazine pages – paper dolls galore! I had forgotten all about candy. I couldn’t wait to get home and carefully cut out the dolls and their wonderful clothes. I was so excited.

“Thank you!” we told the nice woman who had given us a new hobby.

When we got home, Mom gave us each our own cigar box to hold the paper dolls. My sister and I sat on the kitchen floor in our old farmhouse with blunt-nosed scissors, creating our own little worlds with Betsy McCall. We were devastated if we accidentally clipped the white tabs that held the dresses on the dolls, but carefully taped them back on with Mom’s help. I enjoyed those paper dolls more than any candy I could have received.

I still love paper dolls, and once while touring England, my favorite souvenir was a paper doll book. There are still lots of paper dolls around, although they aren’t the popular toys they used to be. Now they’re called vintage, and there are paper doll collector clubs and paper doll websites. A Betsy McCall paper doll sheet can sell on eBay for $20 or more. There are websites devoted solely to Betsy McCall, and in 2000, there was even a Betsy McCall convention in Mesquite, Texas.

McCall’s started putting the paper dolls in the magazine in 1904. America first met Betsy in 1951, just a year before I was born. The last Betsy was designed in the 1990s and was very different from the 1950s doll.

Although McCall’s is no longer published, the McCall’s patterns are still popular among home seamstresses. Betsy’s clothes looked like the McCall’s sewing patterns used by women to create clothing for their own children, just like my mom did. I remember Mom making me a Betsy McCall dress for school using one of the patterns. Like most dresses for girls back then, mine had a full skirt with ruffles. It was made of red cotton, which was the only fabric we could afford, but it was just right for the dress. I could twirl in that dress and feel it float around me. I knew I looked just like Betsy. I felt so special.

Betsy went to school, she went to church and she traveled all over the world. She even had a small dachshund named Nosy that appeared in many of the short stories that accompanied her doll sheets each month. She had family and friends who also appeared as paper dolls. Just like all of us back then, Betsy believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Alas, my daughter, who is now 19, didn’t take to paper dolls the way I did. Because she grew up in the 1980s in Sacramento, California, her interests were more along the line of Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, horses and music. But that’s OK, because now, when I do buy a paper doll book, I don’t have to share.

Attorney Cynthia Curry lives in Sacramento, California, with her daughter, three cats, two dogs and a flock of finches.

Published on Aug 11, 2009

Grit Magazine

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