Shelves full of military dolls, character dolls, baby dolls and tin toys fill an Indiana couple’s home.
With three cases full, they seem to have everything they need to entertain their grandchildren. But these toys aren’t for the kids. They’re collectibles — a hobby for Peggy and John Thomas, founding members of the Indiana Doll Collecting Club.
The club, founded in 1989, is made up of about 14 members who “have a love and interest for dolls,” Peggy said.
Some members of the club stick to collecting more modern dolls like Barbie and Cabbage Patch, but Peggy’s 50-doll collection focuses on antique bisque, or unglazed ceramic, dolls. She said her favorite doll is a black Armand Marseille doll from Germany.
“It’s rare to find a black one,” she said. “I had a black baby as a child and I always wanted one.”
John collects pre-war and post-war Norah Wellings cloth dolls and German tin toys from the ’40s. He has at least 100 dolls on display in his house that he’s collected over the past 37 to 38 years including his Norah Wellings military collection and his favorite “Harry the Hawk” doll.
“I told him no more collecting,” Peggy said, laughing. “We’re out of room.”
John, a former art major at IUP, said he became interested in doll collecting when he started doing minor doll repair. This hobby began when he bought a doll that needed to be touched up, restrung and needed shoes. With two daughters, he said, it was also an activity that the family could do together.
In May 1989, the couple formed the Doll Collecting Club in Indiana after belonging to a club in Latrobe for years. This way, collectors in the Indiana area wouldn’t have to make a long drive.
The nonprofit club meets once a month at Eat’n Park where they discuss all aspects of doll collecting. They used to raise money with a doll show once a year to bring collectors from western Pennsylvania. The money raised was always donated to charitable organizations such as Make-A-Wish Foundation, Alice Paul House and The Salvation Army.
At each meeting, the members focus their discussion on a particular type of doll. September’s meeting showcased dolls that have moving parts, talk, sing or dance.
This year’s meetings include programs on twins, military and patriotic dolls, Christmas angels, Patsy dolls, Disney dolls and dolls that have pets with them, according to club President Ginny Empfield.
Empfield, of Brush Valley, has been collecting for about 15 years. Her collection focuses on several types including bisque dolls, China Head dolls from her mother’s collection and Schoenhut dolls — wooden dolls with spring jointed arms and legs.
“I just always liked the Schoenhut dolls because they’re always different,” Empfield said. “The bisque dolls have maybe a sweeter face.”
For those interested in starting their own collection, Empfield says that having a love for dolls is a necessity.
“You have to like dolls,” she said. “Nowadays kids don’t play with dolls like they did when I grew up. Kids just don’t. … When I was a kid I would cut out paper dolls and dresses from catalogs. Our dolls as a child, that was like your sister that you took care of.”
Empfield said her favorite part of collecting is trying to find new dolls. She adds to her collection by attending doll shows and auctions.
“Part of the fun is finding an older one in good shape that’s not that expensive,” Empfield said. “It’s like a treasure hunt.”
Peggy Thomas agreed but said that it’s important to focus the search on one type of doll.
“You have to limit yourself because there are so many companies that make modern and antique dolls,” she said. “It can get out of control if you don’t pick one particular topic or one particular type.”
Monthly meetings are held at 1 p.m. on the third Tuesday of the month at Eat’n Park. Anyone interested in learning more about doll or toy collecting is welcome to attend, Empfield said.