Beginners' Guide to Collecting Wax Dolls

Doll with cloth body and wax head and limbs, 1860, made by Montanari, England, 19th century
Doll with cloth body and wax head and limbs, 1860, made by Montanari, England, 19th century.

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Dolls have been made from wax from at least the end of the 1700s. Antique wax dolls are made in one of three basic ways, either poured (into a mold) or wax over papier mache or composition (wax around a base of another material) or something called reinforced wax, which is similar to wax-over dolls. Most wax dolls are antique, although a few modern doll artists still work with wax.

Why Make Dolls out of Wax?

Wax at first glance doesn't seem to be a natural material for making dolls. However, especially before the advent of compositions and plastics, the wax had benefits for early dollmakers. First, wax doll heads didn't smash to bits when dropped, like china or bisque dolls. Second, wax could be tinted with beautiful and realistic skin tones. Finally, wax could be poured into molds. However, wax proved very fragile when subjected to temperature changes, so it never became a main dollmaking material.

Production Dates of Wax Dolls

The vast majority of wax dolls were made between the late 1700s and 1900. However, some modern doll makers including Hildegard Gunzel and Susan Krey (who both make wax over porcelain dolls to give their doll's faces an ethereal translucency) still work with wax.

Sizes and Characteristics of Wax Dolls

You can find antique wax dolls from under eight inches tall to over 30" tall; however, most wax dolls tend to be under 24" tall.

Companies That Produced Wax Dolls

Because it is very difficult to permanently mark a wax doll, most wax dolls were only marked with paper labels, and so many of the early makers of these dolls have been lost to history. However, we do know that many English firms made poured wax dolls, such as Montanari and Marsh. German companies made many wax over composition dolls in the 1800s. French companies including Lafitte-Desirat made some wax fashion ladies in the early 1900s.

Types of Wax Dolls

As mentioned above, the three main types of wax dolls are poured wax, wax over composition and reinforced wax. Additionally, wax dolls were made for various uses. Besides being made for play, wax was a popular medium to make religious and creche dolls in the 1700s and 1800s. Fashion dolls have also been found made of wax, and smaller fashion figures from firms such as Lafitte-Desirat were made in the early 1900s.

Why Were So Few Wax Dolls Produced?

Although wax doll heads didn't completely shatter when dropped like china and bisque head dolls, wax doll heads are still delicate. They are easily crushed, scratched and nicked when dropped or in play, and the colors of their eye, lip, and other features can easily rub off. Rapid temperature changes can also damage the dolls (melt with heat or expand and contract in a manner that cracks and crazes the surface). Therefore, wax never became the predominant dollmaking material.

How Fragile Are Wax Dolls?

As mentioned, wax dolls can be damaged by heat and temperature changes. Their soft surfaces are easily scratched. However, wax dolls are not as easily damaged as many collectors think they are. Several antique wax dolls in personal collections have been subject to several hours of more than 100-degree temperatures in a power outage to no ill effect. However, rapid changes in temperature can easily craze the surface of wax-over dolls, and the dolls should only be kept in temperature-controlled areas.

Prices for Wax Dolls

Although certain fine, early examples of wax dolls can bring thousands of dollars, most wax dolls from the second half of the 1800s in excellent condition can be purchased for between $500 to $2,000 or more. Later, more common examples (the late 1880s and 1990s) and dolls with damage can be found for much less.

Damage to wax dolls cannot be easily repaired, and because of this, any wax doll damage will have a serious effect on the value of the dolls. Conversely, wax dolls who have fully retained their original skin tone and feature color, with surfaces without crazing or scratches, sell at high premiums.