The History of Handkerchief Dolls

By Michelle Fortunato
Crafting of a simple handkerchief doll begins with a man's white handkerchief.
Crafting of a simple handkerchief doll begins with a man's white handkerchief.

At times throughout history, toy making supplies were limited. (See Resources 1) During the Civil War, mothers made simple dolls fashioned from handkerchiefs to occupy their fidgety offspring at Sunday Mass. (See Resources 1) These handkerchief dolls, also known as church dolls, pew babies and prayer dolls, are still made today for collectors and for decorative purposes. (See Resources 1)

Sunday Toy

Crafted from soft cloth, the handkerchief doll was a quiet “Sunday toy” that made no sound if dropped during church services. (See Resources 1) Cotton padding placed inside the handkerchief formed the doll’s head, but a resourceful mother or her children’s nanny sometimes used a cube of sugar in place of the cotton. (See Resources 2 and Resources 1) A restless child could then suck on the head of the “sugar baby” throughout a long church ceremony and therefore not disturb the congregation. (See Resources 1)

Easy Craft Project

A diagonally folded, man’s white handkerchief was the basis for the handkerchief doll. (See Resources 2 and Resources 4) Cotton stuffed inside of the center of the fold formed the doll’s head, and a colored ribbon tied beneath was the neck. (See Resources 2) Knotted handkerchief corners, when adjusted to resemble puffed sleeves, simulated the doll’s arms. (See Resources 2)

Face Variations

Some handkerchief dolls were faceless, while others contained prayer faces—closed eyes that were hand stitched onto the fabric. (See Resources 3) In later versions, colored French knots—decorative stitches looped twice or more around the needle and inserted through the fabric---created eyes and a nose, adding personality to the handkerchief doll. (See References 1 and Resources 5)

Classy Doll

The plain look of a handkerchief doll has been somewhat updated over the years. A tea dyed white handkerchief presents an antique look. (See Resources 4) Two circles of colored lace sewn around the back of the doll’s head create a fancy bonnet, and bows and lace trim stitched along the bottom of the skirt add elegant detail to the finished handkerchief doll. (See References 1)

Modern Handkerchief Dolls

Handkerchief dolls are still popular with collectors today. (See Resources 1) Doll enthusiasts sometimes hang small versions of handkerchief dolls on their Christmas tree. (See Resources 1) What began long ago as a means to quiet children in church now serves as a charming hostess gift and provides a touch of nostalgia to a special occasion, such as a bridal shower. (See Resources 2)

About the Author

Michelle Fortunato gained gardening experience from numerous years of at-home plant care and a lifelong love of flowers. She has been writing since 1995, and web content writing since 2009. Her gardening articles appear online, and she has been published in several magazines. Fortunato holds certificates in writing from the Institute of Children's Literature.