Topsey: Paper Dolls as Social Constructs

by Amy Carstensen in

Paper dolls inspired an entire series of paintings.

My sister Renee and I attended the Art Basel show in Miami.   Renee paused before her favorite piece at the show, which featured a small abstract cut out.  Remembering our childhood fun, she suggested that I incorporate paper dolls into my work.

I began tentatively, with a simple female figure that I would trace, paste on, and layer into my work.  The added texture and complexity engaged me, and soon I was branching out into paper dolls of all sizes and shapes.  I painted a series of canvases featuring 1950’s paper dolls.  I tucked paper rabbits and dogs into a giant piece reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland.

And then I discovered Topsey.  Created in 1863, Topsey was the first African American paper doll.  A character taken from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the paper Topsey wore tattered clothes and raggedy shoes.  Her caucasian counterpart wore a flowing dress and bonnet.  Unfortunately, Topsey was about the only black paper doll available at the time. 

But to me, she was beautiful.  And so I began painting, and Topsey emerged again and again from my brushes.

Now that the canvases are complete, I have been able to step back and consider the greater implications of this paper doll.  Clearly, Topsey is emblematic of the narrow-minded foolishness of the period.  But Topsey is unsettling also because she flags the insidious impact of these seemingly inoculous toys.  What of the African American children who had to no paper dolls to play with — other than this slave in tattered clothing — that looked like them?  How did the silent messages regarding beauty and social class affect their self-esteem?

Scholar Arabella Grayson decided to find out.  She collected and researched black paper dolls ranging from Topsey to Aunt Jemima and Sambo to the newer “corrected” paper dolls, and she confirmed the adverse affect of these negative, sterotypical pop culture images on African American children.  Her work, 200 Years of Black Paper Dolls, has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.,1128032.html#editorial-review

Who could have anticipated the complexity of paper dolls and their role as social constructs? As for Topsey, “I am a Princess,” is one of my favorite pieces.  She now wears a sparkly dress and crown.