Introduction to Bisque and Porcelain Dolls

Vintage doll
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Bisque dolls, commonly but incorrectly usually referred to as porcelain dolls, were an innovation in the late 1860s. Up to that time, dolls made of porcelain were all glazed (commonly referred to as china dolls). Bisque dolls allowed a more realistic skin tone. Antique bisque dolls at first had leather or cloth bodies, then composition bodies. Today, bisque dolls are too breakable and expensive to be made as play dolls and therefore are typically only purchased by people who collect dolls.

What Are Bisque and Porcelain?

As mentioned, bisque is unglazed porcelain. Porcelain is created from a paste of clays and water which is molded and then fired at temperatures above 2300 F. After firing, the molded doll head is fired several times more after applications of paints to create the doll's features. Most of the time an application of color is applied to create a more realistic skin tone. If there is no color added to the bisque and it is left white and unglazed, the doll is sometimes referred to as a "parian" doll.

Dates of Production of Bisque Dolls

As mentioned, in the late 1860s several French doll firms created the first unglazed porcelain dolls. These bisque dolls slowly gained popularity until they were the preferred material to make doll heads through the early 1900s until composition overtook bisque as the most popular material. However, bisque dolls have been made in some form or another ever since the 1860s, gaining great popularity again in the 1980s with the advent of collector dolls.

Sizes and Characteristics of Bisque Dolls

A doll is considered bisque if the head of the doll is made of bisque. Most bisque dolls are not made totally of bisque because of the great weight and fragility such a doll with a bisque body and limbs would have. Small dolls, known as all-bisque, were all the rage from the late 1800s to about 1930, many of them were known as "penny dolls." Most bisque dolls have bodies of cloth or composition. Bisque dolls have been made in all sizes, from 1/2 an inch up to life-size dolls of five feet tall.

Companies That Produce Bisque Dolls

Thousands of companies have produced bisque dolls throughout history. Most bisque doll productions started in France and then transferred to the Thuringia region of Germany in the 1880s and 1890s. In the early 1900s, the production mostly transferred to the United States, and then, towards the end of the 20th century, to China. Nearly all bisque dolls created today, except for dolls made by doll artists, are made in China.

Bisque dolls made by Armand Marseille, ca 1930, Germany, 20th century
Bisque dolls made by Armand Marseille De Agostini / G. Cigolini / Getty Images

Prices for Bisque Dolls

As of 2016, the variation of prices on bisque dolls goes from over $200,000 for the most expensive doll ever sold down to under $5 at the Goodwill store for cheaply made bisque dolls from China. Most collector dolls on the mass market range today from $20 to $500 depending on the materials used and the exclusivity of the doll. Many fine antique bisque dolls can be purchased for under $500, although there are many that are valued in the thousands.

Modern Dolls—Bisque or High-Quality Vinyl?

Today, collectors struggle with whether they prefer their collector dolls made of bisque or high-quality vinyl. Certain companies such as Himstedt, Tonner, and Alexander only make dolls in high-quality vinyl, and yet others such as Marie Osmond make most of their dolls out of bisque. Bisque is more breakable, yet it also has a record of being able to last for centuries. Vinyl cannot be smashed and is more pleasing to handle, but we don't know of its longevity in 100 years.

Assessing the Quality of an Antique Bisque Doll

If you decide that you want to collect antique bisque dolls, you need to learn to be able to tell the quality of the doll, since dolls from the same maker can vary widely in price depending on the way the doll's face is painted, on the body style, and on the quality of the bisque itself.

Bisque should be without too many black flecks and pimples or pin holes. The bisque should be slightly translucent, not chalky, and not too heavy. A well-painted bisque doll should have finely detailed painted eyelashes and eyebrows, well-accented lips, and cheek blush that isn't too heavy or blotchy.

Collectors prefer bisque dolls on jointed composition bodies which allow more posing than simple carton (paper mache) bodies jointed only at the hips and shoulders or stiffer all-leather bodies. For bisque French Fashion dolls, a jointed wood body or other body allowing posing is preferred to an all-leather body. These are only some basic guidelines, but they are enough to help you start evaluating your first antique bisque dolls.