What may have been the first wave of Ellis Island dolls surfaced as early as 1992 after the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation let Lenox, today known as Lenox Group (OTCBB: LENX), create a limited edition of six dolls to mark the centennial of Ellis Island. With porcelain heads, hands and legs and costumes, the dolls each measured 1.5 feet tall or slightly smaller and portrayed immigrants of various nationalities, such as "Eva," from Germany, "Stefan" of Poland and "Katrina" of Russia. Artist Pat Thompson served as designer for three of the dolls, which originally cost $152 a piece.
While Lenox Group has created many art ceramics, collectibles and figurines over its 120-year history, since November 23 it has been reorganizing under Chapter 11.
A "Stefan" recently popped up for sale for $110 when purchased with a Russian "Katrina" from Tucson-based Linda Sweeney's site Melange-Art, hosted by online antique mega-mall Ruby Lane. Sweeney has paperwork indicating Stefan's manufacture by Lenox and that his attire -- cap, scarf and trousers of matching tweed, a knit sweater and high-topped shoes -- was very 1890s-ish. "Little boys like Stefan probably did not have a very extensive wardrobe, but one outfit would have been designated as 'best' and saved for the most important occasions. Stefan's mother would have insisted that he save this for the day they actually landed," the documents read, adding that Stefan had ripped his trousers playing tag and so his pants bore a patch sewn by his mother.
Yet, eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY) on December 14 listed a "Stefan" and "Katrina," also reportedly of Lenox pedigree, for $9.99. So eBay is now the stomping grounds for some less monied or already housebroken doll cousins.
About 15 years ago, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation also allowed Heritage Mint to create a limited-edition collection of about 20 porcelain Ellis Island dolls, made in Taiwan, with wind-up music boxes on their backs, for Home Shopping Network (NASDAQ: HSNI). Today, "Sumi" of Japan," "Sasha" of Romania and "Amanda" of England, said to be of this collection, live on eBay with prices as low as $18.99.
A new wave: A second wave of Ellis Island dolls, of Jewish ancestry, emerged almost a decade ago, with new arrivals virtually every year, creations of Miami-based Copa Judaica, a ceremonial and lifestyle product wholesaler. Since 2000 Copa Judaica has sold more than 10,000 of the Jewish Ellis Island dolls, each about 1.5 feet tall, to chain stores, boutiques, Judaica shops and online vendors. Almost every year a new doll or two is designed by co-owner Barbara Matzner and produced in China; now there are 20.
This year's new arrivals,"Rachel" and "Judith," shown above, landed at midyear, from Prussia and western Hungary, respectively. They join 2006's "Yosef," from a Carpathian village, named after Copa Judaica co-owner Ronald Matzner's father, who had blue eyes, blondish hair and knickers like the doll's -- and siblings born in Prussia. Of porcelain and fabric, the dolls for the most part come with a poem that serves as a back story, not reflectintg the life of an actual person but rather the imagination of the Matzners in presenting the Jewish immigration experience from Europe.
Take the blurb for "Hannah":
Some people cross the ocean,"We seem to have been able to strike a chord with many people," Barbara Matzner says, adding that buyers make an association with a name or look. "I have always admired the words written on the Statue of Liberty," she says, "and what Ellis Island stood for at one point in time in our history--people coming from every point, the dream of a better life ... Maybe that's why I'm so fond of this collection."
With trunks and stylish clothes.
They dine on pies and champagne.
They are wealthy ... and it shows!
But we're down in steerage,
Where the food is really plain.
My trunk is small and wicker,
But I like it just the same.
Online vendors selling these Jewish dolls, for about $60 to $65 apiece, include Judaism.com run by Pittsburgh-based Shlomo Perelman; Brooklynite Ben Zablotsky's mail-order site ZionJudaica.com and JewishBazaar.com of Maryland-based Zeev Golan. QVC.com, owned by Liberty Media Interactive (NASDAQ: LINTA) has them for $55.49. Plus they're listed on eBay for much less.
The bookstore and online shop at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles also sells Copa's Jewish dolls for $65, and museum director Liebe Geft says it's relevant for the shop to offer items close to the themes raised in the museum's exhibit Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves. This multimedia installation about American diversity and immigration in part replicates the Ellis Island experience through a re-creation of a hall used to process immigrants. "Our origins, our traditions, everything that came with those who immigrated is part of the conversation that revolves around the exhibit," Geft says. "Part of the message of the exhibit is the importance of cherishing the recipes, the jokes, [the things] that make us who we are. These dolls represent that era, in their dress and their accessories and their associations, the walks of life they represent."
For its part, the Ellis Island's museum gift shop and online store, run by Aramark (a public company until a year or so ago), carries a more modestly priced line: These Ells Island doll ornaments, male or female, representing immigrants from Russia and other countries, are handcrafted in Sweden and go for about $10 or $13.
These days, it seems, Americana is all over the map -- geographically and price wise.