skip navigation and jump to page content The Library of CongressThe American Folklife Center 
Community Roots: Selections from the Local Legacies Project
Collage of Local Legacies
 Home >> ALABAMA
Rare Ella Smith doll, with turned head
A rare original Ella Smith doll, with turned head and applied ears

Roanoke, Alabama: Home of the Ella Smith Doll

During its prime, a doll factory in Roanoke, Alabama, operated by Ella Gauntt Smith, produced ten thousand of her dolls each year. The dolls are known by several names: Alabama Baby, Alabama Indestructible Doll, Roanoke Doll, or Ella Smith Doll.

Ms. Smith, a skilled seamstress, especially skilled in embroidery and lace-making, was also an amateur photographer who enjoyed traveling and watching movies. In December 1897, Verna Pittman, a neighbor girl, brought her broken bisque doll to Mrs. Smith for repairs. Smith experimented for two years before she successfully made the repairs: She poured the head full of plaster, covered it was a scrap of stockinette, and then repainted the features. She sewed the head onto the body and replaced the wig. The indestructible Ella Smith Doll had been born. In 1901, Mrs. Smith received the first patent on her doll (in her husband's name - as women could not be granted patents at that time), and in 1904 went to the St. Louis Exposition (World's Fair), where she won a blue ribbon with her dolls. Smith was always experimenting with her dolls, always making improvements, so that her creations were constantly evolving.

Smith was the first dollmaker in the South to manufacture black dolls, which made up approximately 10 percent of her production. With a hymn-singing parrot on her shoulder, she worked in a locked room on the second floor of a doll factory which her husband had built for her. Eventually she employed approximately 10-12 women, instructing them in how to mold the heads from a heavy fleece-lined fabric, cut the bodies, arms and legs from strong cotton, apply the flesh-colored paint, and paint the doll's features: hair, lips, and eyes. After an unfortunate business deal, Smith's doll company was sued and had to pay a sizeable settlement. This took a toll on her already poor health -- she suffered from diabetes and kidney disease -- and Ella Smith died in April 1932.

Until 1996, doll shows were organized sporadically in Roanoke. In that year they became an annual event at which owners of Roanoke dolls were invited to display their dolls in glass cases for the day. A commemorative postal cancellation has been issued each year on that day during the doll show. In July 1997, the Ella Smith doll was featured in a 15-stamp collection of "Classic American Dolls." Since 1998, four reproduction Ella Smith dollars have been manufactured by Collectible Concepts, selling for between $150 and $300. Original Ella Smith dolls fetch as much as $20,000.

The project documentation includes a seven-page written report, eleven 8 x 10 color photos of antique dolls or their reproductions, printouts of a website devoted to Ella Smith dolls, newspaper coverage, a copy of the 1997 Classic American Dolls series of stamps, a commemorative section of the Randolph News Leader on the Ella Smith Doll Show, and a 1998 calendar featuring Ella Smith dolls.

Originally submitted by: Bob Riley, Representative (3rd District).

link to www.loc.govMore Local Legacies...

The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

disclaimer for external linksLearn More About It...
 Home >> ALABAMA
  The Library of Congress 
The American Folklife Center
Contact Us
AFC Icon