It takes a keen eye — or a magnifying glass — to see the time-weathered details on a tiny doll resting in JenniePearl Reese’s palm. Barely an inch high, the treasured doll is more than 100 years old, a family heirloom of minuscule dimensions that evokes enormous joy.
“My mother was born in 1903 and this was her doll,” Reese said, “the only one she had.”
Her mother was in a family of 11 children, and the tiny fired-bisque Penny Doll is an irreplaceable part of her family history. It’s among hundreds of dolls Reese has on display in her Healdsburg home, which arguably could double as a doll museum.
Reese, who celebrates her 86th birthday this month, recalls the details of most of her dolls — where they were purchased or whether they were given to her, the maker’s name and type of doll, if they are originals or reproductions and their country of origin.
“I can pretty much tell you,” she said. “There’s a story behind them all.”
The dolls come from across the globe, some handmade by renowned artisans, others produced by well-known doll manufacturers. Although each is well-loved by Reese, those with sentimental value — like her mother’s diminutive doll — are the ones she treasures the most.
One that’s at least 3 feet tall was purchased for Reese in 1944 when her older brother was stationed in France with the U.S. Army during World War II. With rosy cheeks, a sweet face and yarn hair styled into two braids, the doll reminded her brother of Reese, just turning 12 at the time.
Her brother lost his life serving in the war; the doll sent to Reese as a birthday gift is her favorite.
“You can see she’s been well-loved,” Reese said, carefully setting the doll onto her sofa. “She had a blue beret, but I don’t know what happened to it.” Otherwise, the doll still wears her original clothing.
Another treasured doll was a gift from Reese’s parents when she was 4, her first doll. “She used to say ‘Mama’ but now she squeaks,” Reese said.
Others were gifts from family members or friends. Reese is the mother of three daughters and has eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
A retired secretary to the pastor of a local church, Reese twice served as president of the Redwood Empire Doll and Study Club, and remains active in the group. It’s fun, she said, to share her dolls and their histories, and to learn about others’ dolls. Members share a deep affection for dolls, whether they’ve developed an interest as adults or have adored them, like Reese, since childhood.
“I just love dolls. I’ve always loved them from the time I was a child,” she said.
Composition dolls, paper dolls, plastic dolls, those made of cloth, porcelain or bisque, Reese finds something appealing about them all.
At last count — conducted some time ago — more than 500 dolls were in her collection, though Reese estimates she now may have double the amount. Many are just a few inches high, all are thoughtfully arranged in display cases throughout her home. Some are antique or vintage, many are modern, some are easily recognizable: Mary Poppins, Raggedy Ann and Andy, and curly-haired Shirley Temple, the popular child star of the 1930s.
Doll and Toy Show & Sale
The Redwood Empire Doll and Study Club will host its Doll and Toy Show & Sale Sunday at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. Dolls and accessories, as well as miniatures, Teddy bears and toys, will be available for purchase during the event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Experts will be on hand for valuations and doll identification.
Admission is $6, free for kids younger than 12. Proceeds benefit the Living Room, a Santa Rosa drop-in day program for homeless women and children. For more information, visit santarosadollshow.blogspot.com, facebook.com/Redwood EmpireDollAndStudyClub, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.