DISCOVERIES IN THE ARCHIVE: Little World Dolls

C&C and Bank Street College Collaborate with Experts to Solve Archives Mystery

The C&C Archives, in conjunction with Bank Street Archives, has been digging deep into the history of City and Country School in hopes of pinning down the origins of a few wooden dolls (see photos).

Margery Franklin ‘46, C&C alum and daughter of Barbara Biber (celebrated progressive educator and researcher), donated a set of wooden dolls that Biber believed were originally in Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s collection. Lucy Sprague Mitchell was not only the founder of Bank Street College, but she was an early teacher at C&C, and a founder of the Bureau of Educational Experiments (BEE) which supported C&C in its earliest years. Jeroen Staring, a Dutch education researcher and expert on American progressive education, had the chance to visit both of our archives recently and provided some insight into these intriguing dolls.
 
Helen Marot, partner of Caroline Pratt (C&C founder) and labor and education activist, published a book in 1918, The Creative Impulse in Industry, in which she advocates for the creation of a pre-vocational school, as described by Pratt. The plan describes an experimental toy shop for manufacturing wooden toys, simple to construct, for a staff of forty students ranging in age from fourteen to seventeen years. Half a dozen adults would do the heavy or unsafe work on machines and would help to guide the students to improve their standards and techniques related to manufacturing toys, keeping accounts and assessing the shop’s costs, working force, economics, service, etc. The experimental school and toy shop students who formed the staff were manufacturers, producers, clerks, and, of course, learners—all at the same time. The course would be limited to two years. Marot explained the choice of making toys. Referring to Pratt’s earlier (1909-1915) career as a manufacturer of wooden toys and dolls, she declared: “[The] work done by Caroline Pratt on children’s playthings has disclosed the fact that the present toy market is below grade from the point of view of the service of toys to children. The market does not supply the children with the sort of material and the sort of tools they require in their play schemes. Therefore, the product chosen has a legitimate social claim on the market.” (p. 116)
 
Did Marot’s publication lead to anything? The archives of the Bureau of Educational Experiments in Bank Street College of Education show that Marot promoted the plan among manufacturers, businesspersons, educators, financiers, and others, showing them a collection of wooden figurines called “Little World Toys” intended to be manufactured by the prospective school’s students, well before her book was published. During the whole of 1918, and during early winter months of 1919, she tried to gain support for founding the school; to no avail. It is possible--Staring suggests it is even likely--that the collection of the painted wooden figurines representing men, women, and children in the Bank Street College of Education Archives forms part of the very set of “Little World Toys” models that Helen Marot showed to the businessmen and others interested in 1918. If so, it is also probable that Caroline Pratt had made them. It is likely that they remained in possession of the BEE, which had financed Marot’s research and book, and that Lucy Sprague Mitchell, or perhaps even Principal of the BEE Nursery School Harriet M. Johnson, gave them to Barbara Biber in the early 1930s. It is also possible that part of the set of demonstration “Little World Toys” remained in possession of Helen Marot and Caroline Pratt, to be used as playthings in City and Country School. Several photos of similar dolls have been found in the C&C Archives in use in a VIIs classroom in the 1950s, as well as others. Margery Franklin suggests that these dolls may have been models for the wooden dolls later (1930s-1940s) produced by a Mr. Shapiro, who ran a store located on the rear ground floor of 69 Bank Street which then housed the nursery school and the BEE. This store also sold the famous unit blocks designed by Caroline Pratt.
 
Staring speculates that failure of the pre-vocational school made way for the Play School (the original name of C&C) to transform and take root as the City and Country School we know today. Future Staring publications promise to make this connection stronger, and we look forward to sharing those findings.
 
Do you have any memories of working with these dolls? Or any information on the “Little Worlds Dolls?” Reach out to City and Country School at: communications@cityancountry.org.
 
Contributors:
* Jane Clarke, Director of Lower School at City and Country School
* Harriet K. Cuffaro, former Professor of Early Childhood Education at Bank Street College of Education and former City and Country Lower School Educational Consultant
* Margery B. Franklin, former Director of the Child Development Institute at Sarah Lawrence College
* Jennifer Marck Moran, Archivist at City and Country School
* Jordis Rosberg, Assistant Archivist and Research Librarian at City and Country School
* Lindsey Wyckoff, Archivist at Bank Street College of Education
* Jeroen Staring, PhD student, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
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