Many people may not consider paper dolls to be true ephemera because they were items purchased with the idea of keeping them. But because they are made of paper, they are fragile and therefore quite ephemeral things. Perhaps the least likely to survive of all, are the articulated or jointed paper dolls. For instead of simply bouncing them along a surface to move them, children and adults who played with them took advantage of all the movements the paper dolls offered. More play literally means more wear and tear. And while limbs and even torsos could be traced onto new pieces of paper, cut and even colored to match (as best as possible), and then fastened to repair the dolls, this was not often done. Even when torn parts were replaced or repaired, the sad state of affairs led to the paper dolls being devalued and discarded at some point. This makes finding vintage and antique articulated paper dolls quite a challenge.
Jointed or articulated paper dolls originated in France in the mid-1700s. Traditionally, these two-dimensional paper dolls were assembled via pins and corks, eyelets, or brads; making the jointed paper doll a cross between a paper doll and a puppet. Because these articulated paper dolls resembled a jumping-jack figure, these dolls were called “dancing-jack puppets, which in French is “pantins”. The movements of the pantins made them ideal for satirizing French nobility; a pastime so popular in France that the dolls became all the rage at court. And, of course, what was popular at court became popular with everyone — who could afford it, anyway.
Because jumping-jack paper dolls do not have paper costumes or fashions to change and exchange, many paper doll collectors do not consider pantins to be paper dolls; pantins or jumping-jacks are considered to be a distinct and separate category of doll collecting.
While the French used these paper puppets to mock political puppetry, other Europeans took their paper dolls to The Stage. Not only were there proper Shakespearean paper doll casts but stages as well. And quite often, the jumping-jack paper dolls were created in the likenesses of famous actors, actresses, opera stars, and other performers. But royals were not left out either. The identity of this Victorian articulated Littauer & Boysen (L&B) paper doll is considered to be either Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII of England, or actress Lillie Langtry — ironically a mistress of King Edward VII (when he was just the Prince of Wales). The King obviously had a type!
Across the pond, here in America, paper was a prized possession in the new colony. It was not to be “wasted” on toys. It wouldn’t be until the 1800s that the grinding and pulping process would make paper more affordable. By the early 1900s, women’s magazines like The Delineator (which promoted Butterick patterns) would have paper dolls to show and sell fashions to homemakers (much like McCall’s would use Betsy decades later), including jointed paper dolls. Soon, entire books of articulated paper dolls and toys would be published, like this one by Milton Bradley.
Pantins clearly became children’s playthings. Eventually, everything from comic books to cereal boxes would offer the chance to cut out and assemble articulated paper dolls. We’ve come a long way from the satire of French royals and depictions of famous actors; sort of. But only if we limit ourselves, our collecting, our imaginations.