Everything You Need to Know About Celluloid Dolls

celluloid dolls
Two-tone celluloid dolls, made by Rheinische Gummi und Celluloid Fabrik, Germany, 20th century. De Agostini / G. Cigolini / Getty Images

When celluloid was invented and first came to prominence in the 1870s, dolls were nearly all breakable and fragile—bisque and china dolls were easily shattered and papier mache and wax easily ruined. So, it wasn't a surprise that doll companies started experimenting with celluloid to mold dolls rather early on. By the early 1900s, celluloid dolls were plentiful, since celluloid was easily molded and generally inexpensive.

What Is Celluloid?

Celluloid is one of the first synthetic plastics ever created. It is a plastic created from wood products that include cellulose nitrate and camphor. First created in 1863, it was a popular material to make items as diverse as jewelry and dolls from the 1870s through the 1930s. Celluloid, however, was not the perfect plastic, since it is flammable and deteriorates easily if exposed to moisture, and can be prone to cracking and yellowing with certain formulations.

Dates of Production of Celluloid Dolls

Some companies experimented with celluloid dolls nearly as soon as celluloid hit the general market. For example, Bru made some of their fashion dolls with celluloid heads, a few of which have survived to today, and other celluloid dolls have been reported from the end of the 1800s. Celluloid dolls were produced as late as the 1950s, but the vast majority were produced from 1900 through the 1940s.

Sizes and Characteristics of Celluloid Dolls

Celluloid dolls can vary in size from only an inch or two tall to as large as 30 inches for large Japanese celluloid baby or toddler dolls. However, most celluloid dolls tend to be smaller dolls due to the lightweight nature and fragility of the plastic.

Companies That Produced Celluloid Dolls

Companies in Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States are among the hundreds that have produced celluloid dolls. Germany had most of the earliest production, followed by the United States and Japan. Well-known celluloid doll companies include Rheinische Gummi und Celluloid Fabrik Co. and Turtle Mark (Germany), Petitcolin (France), and Irwin (United States).

Types of Celluloid Dolls

Kewpies, German dolly-faced dolls (by companies including Kammer & Reinhardt), French Fashion dolls, baby dolls, national costume dolls, and many others have been made in celluloid. By the late 1930s and 1940s, however, most of the celluloid-made dolls were cheaply made as either carnival prizes or National Costume Dolls.

Do Celluloid Dolls Explode?

Well, technically they can since celluloid is highly flammable. I have heard of no reports of the dolls exploding, and the Celluloid dolls (and buttons) in my collection were once subjected to temperatures over 100 degrees for over 15 hours during a local blackout, to no ill effect. However, because the dolls were flammable and also fragile and crushable, they fell out of favor in the mid-20th century and were not generally used to make dolls after that. If you do have any celluloid dolls, to be safe, don't play with them outside in the summer heat or in front of a roaring fire.