Sunday, June 9, 2019

Guest Post by Barbara Casey, Author of VELVALEE DICKINSON: The “Doll Woman” Spy


Velvalee began collecting dolls in 1934 at the age of 41 when a friend gave her a pair of native dolls from the Philippines. As other friends began giving Velvalee dolls, her interest in collecting dolls grew. Doll collecting was then a burgeoning pastime supported by local clubs, specialty dealers, and avid hobbyists. Distinctly an adult activity, primarily women collected dolls for their beauty, for associations, and for memories they invoked of dolls they had in their own childhood. These same reasons for collecting dolls continue today, which makes it one of the largest hobby groups in the world.

Velvalee continued to build up her collection, acquiring an array of foreign, antique, and rare dolls. Confiding she was “tired of accepting orders from others,” she started publishing a list of her dolls that were for sale as early as 1939, and she joined the Doll Collectors of America with its headquarters in Ft. Edward, New York. She also became a member of the Toy Collectors Club of New York, the parent company of the United Federation of Doll Clubs (UFDC). However, after passing a resolution in September 1944 that its members had to be “true 100 percent American,” the UFDC removed Velvalee from its membership roster a month later because of her traitorous activities.

Within a short time after moving to New York Velvalee opened her own doll shop specializing in rare and antique dolls, first out of the apartment at 680 Madison Avenue, and eventually in October 1941, she moved her business to the fashionable and spacious storefront located at 718 Madison Avenue.

          The Valvalee Dickinson doll shop catered to collectors throughout the United States and overseas who were interested in foreign, regional, and antique dolls. Her clientele, which eventually numbered up to 20,000, included movie and Broadway stars, assorted social celebrities, as well as affluent men and women of the carriage trade. The prices she charged these collectors for her highly sought-after dolls started at a minimum of twenty-five dollars, with some of the more rare dolls fetching well into the thousands of dollars.

She also worked hard to make dolls available at lower prices for her more pedestrian, less prosperous customers. In a large ad she placed in Doll News, the official newsletter of the National Doll and Toy Collectors of New York, she advertised 7-inch cloth dolls from Palestine at five dollars for a group of three; Japanese ichimatsu dolls from 10 to 14 inches at ten dollars to eighteen dollars; Chad Valley royal children dolls, 15 to 18 inches for ten dollars to fifteen dollars; and a preprinted cloth doll pattern for one dollar.

An aggressive and creative marketer, Velvalee wrote several articles for The Complete Collector, a specialized journal for antique collectors. The somewhat lengthy, florid subtitle for these articles was “A Monthly Discourse on the Fine Arts for the Contemplative Man’s Recreation.”

It was primarily through Velvalee’s frequent correspondence with clients and other doll collectors that gave her doll store the most notice, however. All of her letters, note cards, and other stationery were written on customized blue stationery embellished with a scarlet border and letterhead advertising her business in “Dolls – Antique – Foreign – Regional – Playthings.” The brochures she mailed out, written on the same customized blue stationery, were also embellished with a scarlet letterhead and a border of international dolls which boasted: “We have dolls from nearly every country in the world and state in the United States.”

It was through her chatty correspondence that Velvalee became a target of the FBI and she was eventually charged with espionage. Many whispered that it was her dolls who had talked and revealed her crimes. Today, her dolls continue to talk and collectors pay top dollar whenever a Velvalee Dickinson doll goes up for auction.

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