The Polly Heckewelder doll, the oldest continuously made American doll, is made in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Made and sold by the Moravian Ladies’ Sewing Society since 1872, this doll carries the memory of the real Polly around the world.
“Polly” dolls tell more than the story of Polly Heckewelder. The story of the doll includes the story of its creators, the Moravian Ladies’ Sewing Society and how she came to be.
A doll to honor Polly
Johanna Maria Heckewelder (who was called “Polly” later in her life) was born April 16, 1781. Her parents were missionaries to the Indians in what is now the state of Ohio. The Heckewelders spent several years living and working among the Lenni Lenape tribe. John Heckewelder, Polly’s father, became a noted historian of the American Indians.
Polly was so favored by the tribe that in 1782, they made for her a cloth doll with a hand painted face on a ball like head and dressed her in European style colonial dress. This primitive doll is now in the collection of the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem. In 1785, Polly was sent to the school for girls in Bethlehem. She lived there until her education was completed. She then became a teacher of ornamental needlework at the girls school in Lititz, Pennsylvania.
At the age of 24, Polly lost her hearing and had to resign her teaching position. She then returned to Bethlehem to live in the Sisters’ House. When her parents retired because of her mother’s failing health, they came to live in Bethlehem. Polly moved into her parents home and lived there until the deaths of both parents. Then she returned to live the remainder of her life in the Sisters’ House. She died September 19, 1868, and was buried in God’s Acre.
The Moravian Ladies’ Sewing Society was established by Polly Heckewelder in 1861 and was known as the Soldier’s Relief Society of Central Moravian Church to do war work during the War Between the States.
After the war ended in 1865, the Society became the Freedman’s Aid Society and in 1869, it became the Moravian Ladies’ Sewing Society and so it remains to this day. At that time, it was decided by the group to make dolls in honor of Polly Heckewelder. Perhaps Polly’s own childhood cloth doll influenced this decision as an appropriate way to honor her. The ladies could still have a sewing group and do useful work by making and selling dolls.
The first Polly doll was made and sold in 1872. That doll was about 19 inches tall and dressed typical of a little girl of the 19th century. She had a ball-shaped head and hand painted face.
Making a Polly Doll
Over the years, the Polly Doll has changed somewhat but is basically the same. The doll comes in two forms: one has brown hair, brown eyes and wears a pink checked gingham dress, while the other has blond hair and blue eyes and is dressed in blue checked gingham. The process leading to the completion of a doll takes about 80 hours. The main body parts are stitched by machine and then stuffed and hand sewn together. The faces are hand painted on fabric which is then hand sewn to the doll’s head. The doll’s clothing: the dress, with the exception of the neck ruffle which is hemmed on an antique sewing machine, organdy apron, pantaloons, slip, undercap and crocheted cap are all handmade. The tubing for the stockings and the shoes are purchased.
The members of the Society meet weekly (Tuesday mornings, 9:00 – 11:30) to sew on the dolls. Each member specializes in making a specific part or two of the doll.
Over the years, the group has averaged completing and selling 40 dolls per year. The price of the doll is now $125.00 and still selling. The waiting time between ordering and receiving a doll is one to two years.
At the end of the year, the profit generated from the sale of the dolls is shared among the Moravian churches represented in the group, and other church and missionary causes. For nearly a hundred years, part of the profits were used to make a surplice for each new minister of the Northern Province of the Moravian Church; however, the group is no longer able to provide that service. The importance of the Polly doll is that she represents a labor of love and dedication of many Moravian women working together through a period of more than 140 years to tell the story of the real Polly, and her role in Moravian history. Over the years, it has been estimated that more than 6,000 dolls have been made and shipped to different countries around the world.
For information on ordering a Polly Heckwelder Doll, visit www.centralmoravianchurch.org and select “Polly Heckewelder Doll” from the “Get Connected” tab.
Mary Brown is a member of Central Moravian Church and the Moravian Ladies’ Sewing Society. Photo above, Mae Long sews a Polly doll dress.
From the January/February 2014 Moravian Magazine