Upending unskilled: making and marketing the Milwaukee Handicraft Project dolls, 1935-1943

Robinson, Allison L. W.
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University of Delaware
In 1938, the Milwaukee Handicraft Project unveiled its latest product – a doll that combined handcrafted molding for the face with hand and machine stitching for the body and clothing. It was one of many “handicraft” objects produced by this Work Projects Administration program meant to raise the national taste in everyday goods. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Midwest, the administrators believed that well-designed and well-crafted objects had the power to uplift the general public and the “unskilled” female laborer hired to create them. ☐ The dolls served as pedagogical tools to teach children civic participation while training the women who made them to work in a factory setting. Examination of the dolls suggests a more nuanced narrative than that of the transformed unskilled laborer, one that centers exchange between workers and administrators in the production of dolls for children on relief across the country. Further, through three categories of dolls – American, Negro American, and Foreign – The Milwaukee Handicraft Project made an argument about who is American and who is not articulated through design. Details including skin color, hair texture, and clothing identified physical traits and cultural practices embodied by each doll, materially defining and marketing a narrative of visualized similarities and differences between Americans and European ethnic groups. ☐ Dolls are powerful objects that connect us to the past. The dolls discussed in this thesis materially capture each moment in which a woman working on the Milwaukee Handicraft Project passed a needle through both sides of a cloth or the moment in which cotton yarn was carefully woven and then glued into place to reproduce the human form in miniature. The women who designed the dolls are present in the carefully rendered details. The women who made the dolls are embodied in every stitch and painted feature. And by looking closely at the dolls’ design, their production, and the visual language communicated through their final form, we can see the skill that went into producing them, the care with which they were designed and made, and the ideas about Americanness and the power of design to change lives.
Social sciences , Dolls , Great Depression , Handicraft , Milwaukee , WPA , Work projects administration