April Marius’ favorite doll started out as a secret.
Twenty two years ago, during a summer visit to Cape Cod, Marius stopped in at a doll shop and bought two of the toys for her newborn daughter Kaylan.
Her first choice was familiar: the wood-resin African-American Daddy Long Leg doll characterized by an expressive lifelike face, dangly legs and dressed in historical or themed outfits. But it was her second investment that would have a lasting effect.
“The store owner told me to buy this other doll called topsy-turvy and I didn’t know anything about it,” says Marius, 60, of Freeport. “It was a modern doll, but she told me the story behind it, and I was fascinated.”
The two-headed, two-bodied topsy-turvy doll originated in American plantation nurseries in the early 19th century and was a slave secret. The toy was created by a slave who wanted her daughter to have a doll that looked like her.
“The master would not allow her to play with a black doll in the house,” Marius says. “So the mother made a two-sided doll.”
The topsy-turvy doll features one black body and one white conjoined at the lower waist where the hips and legs would typically be. The lining of one’s dress is the outside of the other’s, meaning that with a flip of the skirt, the young girl was able to keep the secret. By the mid-20th century, the dolls had grown so popular that they were mass-produced and available in stores across the country.
These days, they’re mostly found in museums or in private collections like Marius’. Since her initial investments, Marius has amassed more than 350 rare African-American dolls, a few dozen of which will be on display at the Long Island Children’s Museum on Sunday, Feb. 19, as part of its History of Dolls of Color exhibit in honor of Black History Month.
MAKING A COLLECTION
Marius’ purchases are not guided by aesthetics or popularity. She’s sold strictly on inspiration.
“I look for unique,” Marius says. “When I’m searching auctions, I don’t look for a particular human doll. I collect a variety of examples in a period.”
The majority of Marius’ dolls are from the 1800s to the 1920s. She owns about 150 Daddy Long Leg dolls, which were introduced in 1989 and retired in the early 2000s.
“These dolls don’t come with tags,” she says. “You have to literally research to see where they come from.”
Marius says the topsy-turvy doll made her look into history.
Oftentimes, determining the origin of a doll is only possible by identifying the materials it is made of.
At her Feb. 19 program, she will display items such as a chicken bone, baby bottle nipple, piece of wood, dowel, slab of clay, dirt and wax. She’ll quiz the audience on which of the materials were used to make a doll. Then she’ll explain that all of these materials were used at different times in the 1800s and 1900s in people’s homes to make the toy figures.
Marius has not restored any of the dolls in her collection.
“You destroy the value of the item,” she says. “Whether it’s messed up or not, you don’t do that.”
Those who do, she says, are more concerned with a doll appearing “pretty” or “perfect.”
She places priority on being precise.
“I hope that people learn something and enjoy my exhibit,” Marius says. “It’s like the story of topsy-turvy: That story gets repeated over and over again because it’s interesting.”
‘History of Dolls of Color’
WHEN | WHERE 1 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Long Island Children’s Museum, 11 Davis Ave., Garden City
INFO 516-224-5800, licm.org
ADMISSION Included with $13 museum admission
See a separate collection of Marius’ dolls at the Uniondale Public Library.
‘History Through Dolls of Color’
WHEN | WHERE Through Feb. 28, Uniondale Public Library, 400 Uniondale Ave.
INFO 516-489-2220, uniondalelibrary.org