For a special treat, visit the German-American Cultural Center (CACC), located in the heart of Gretna’s Historic District at 519 Huey P. Long Ave. to enjoy the lovely antique German-made dolls. It doesn’t matter if you’re a grownup or child, the dolls are a delight, steeped in history, lovely to look at and examples of artistic skills and artisanship.
The GACC acquired these dolls, circa 2012, from a local doll collector. There are 18 dolls of various types and sizes with soft bodies, most with natural hair and handmade dresses. The dolls were all made between the late 1800s and early 1900s by companies in the Thuringia region of central Germany. Thuringia was in the East German bloc from 1949 to 1990.
“For more than four centuries, Germany was a global center for dolls,” said Carol Schlueter, director of the GACC. “Most of Germany’s dolls were made in the region of Thuringia, where more than 500 different doll-making companies were headquartered. The dolls produced in this region were some of the very best ever produced in the world.
“Thuringia had established a thriving toy-making industry since the 14th century. It had an excellent supply of the clay and minerals needed for porcelain production, as well as forests for wood to fire the kilns, so it was an ideal location for porcelain manufacturing.”
The doll heads and limbs were made of bisque, a part of the process of kiln-fired porcelain; that is, the dolls were then glazed and fired again. The porcelain is made from a mixture of clay and water molded into doll parts, then fired. Most of the time, color is added to the bisque to make the doll’s skin color appear more realistic. Sometimes, the bisque is left white. Dolls with this white bisque skin tone are referred to as Parian dolls. German Parian dolls were popular from 1865-1880 until new techniques were widely used from the mid-1880s to the 1930s. Many collectors refer to all of the dolls in the CACC’s collection as Parian and molded bisque dolls. The collection is a treasure.
“The dolls in our collection all have period clothes. Some are baby dolls, two are bride dolls, and most look like young girls,” Schlueter said.
“Antique china dolls have porcelain china heads and wood, cloth or kid leather bodies. Some have molded, painted hair, but others have wigs. They range in size from 17 to 25 inches tall.”
Some of the best-known antique dolls made in Germany were made by Armand Marseille. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, he emigrated to Germany with his family after 1860. From 1900 to 1930, his company reportedly produced 1,000 bisque or porcelain doll heads each day, acquiring doll bodies from other manufacturers.
The GACC’s collection includes several Armand Marseille dolls, including “My Dream Baby,” “Viola,” “Queen Louise,” and “Floradora.”
Other dolls at the museum are from German designers such as Alt, Beck & Gottschalck, Schoenau & Hoffmeister, Heinrich Handwerck, Simon & Halbig and Charles M. Bergmann.
The museum at 519 Huey P. Long Ave. in Gretna is open free of charge from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. The museum is dedicated to the German immigrants who founded Gretna in 1836 and interprets their unique contribution to Louisiana’s history through exhibits, lectures and programs.
In addition to the doll exhibit, it has educational exhibits on early German cultural and religious organizations, as well as a display of vintage photographs of Gretna and McDonoghville stores, homes and businesses.
The German-American Maifest was a huge success with so many people that the German beer sold out early! It was the first festival held in Gretna in over a year and people enjoyed it tremendously. Locals are looking forward to the center’s next event, Oktoberfest, which is planned for Oct. 9, 2021.