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
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
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
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
News Leader on the Ella Smith Doll Show, and a 1998 calendar
featuring Ella Smith dolls.
Originally submitted by: Bob Riley, Representative (3rd District).
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.