Dolls teach their collectors lessons about art, history and culture, but those aren't the reasons that Candi Brunnelle collects them.
"I play with mine. I do. The dolls that I've got I play with them all. I dress them," said Brunnelle, a grandmother who has never outgrown her girlhood love of dolls.
Brunnelle was among the doll lovers who gathered last weekend for a 40th anniversary luncheon and program of the Black Hills Doll Club in Rapid City.
Brunnelle no longer belongs to the club, but she joined many of the club's current 20 members and other passionate doll collectors from across the Black Hills region to "play dolls" and celebrate the club that charter members Evelyn Heidepriem, Helene Steen and Doris Brodrick helped start back in 1972. Women came from came from United Federation of Doll Clubs from as far away as Nebraska and North Dakota.
The three Rapid City women are described as living "encyclopedias" of doll knowledge. Steen and Brodrick make dolls and Heidepriem is a former regional director for UFDC. Their expertise has taught new members like Jan Goen much about the business and the art of dolls.
"I'm the newest member of the club, and I probably have about 15 of all different sizes," said Goen, who joined a few months ago. "I started my collection so I could sew for them."
Goen sews, crochets and knits outfits for all sizes of dolls.
"I have over 100 patterns for different sizes and types. I like to add a little bling," she admits. She and Brunelle are among several smaller groups of doll enthusiasts who meet to sew clothes or build furniture for their collections.
Most club members have much larger collections, but asking a doll collector exactly how many dolls she has, or what their value is, is a social faux pas akin to asking a South Dakota rancher how many head of cattle he owns. It just isn't polite.
"In my case, I don't really know how many I have," said Heidepriem. "I keep track of my dolls by maker, mostly, because I have favorite makers that I like."
Her favorite doll makers haven't changed over the years, but the prices they charge for them certainly have, she said. Popular doll makers include the venerable Effanbee Doll Company to the current-day Robert Tonner dolls. Heidepriem often "set aside a few dollars out the grocery money" to buy the dolls she wanted, and her investment has paid off over time. "I haven't lost money on them," she said.
More than being a good investment, doll collecting has been an enjoyment, said Heidepriem said.
"I'm a born collector, I guess. I've been called a pack-rat. I bring everything I see home, especially if it's shiny and pretty. But in the world of collecting, dolls are a good way to collect something you enjoy living with on a day-to-day basis," she said.
Heidepriem has been collecting dolls since 1959, when she was living in Deadwood at the time of a forest fire that threatened the town. Forced to evacuate her home in an emergency, she grabbed three things: a new black cocktail dress, her Labrador dog and a box containing two old, broken dolls from the late 1890s.
"My aunt had given me her two old dolls. They were of German descent and they were falling apart," she said. For some reason, Heidepriem thought they were important — and they launched her collecting hobby. By the time the 1972 Black Hills Flood hit, Heidepriem was living in Rapid City. Even though the first floor of her home was underwater, her doll collection stayed safe on the second floor.
Doll-making history is what Goen enjoys about the doll club. The Black Hills Doll Club meets the first Wednesday of each month and its focus is on the art and the science behind doll collecting.
"There's a lot of history behind these dolls," she said. Who made them, what materials were used, how much they are worth today or might be in the future?
"Our focus is education. For every meeting, one of the members researches and prepares a presentation on things such as: doll repairs, wig making, restringing, identifying genuine antiques vs. reproductions, new information on old dolls, where to find certain dolls or materials," said club member Bev Jacson.
Some members collect antique dolls from a certain period in history.
"Some collect antique dolls and study what a doll might tell us about the economic and social climate of a bygone era. For example, prior to World War I, Germany’s largest export were their bisque dolls. During and following this war, doll molds were “smuggled” to Japan where copies were made and exported," Jacson said.
Others focus on dolls from their childhoods.
"Finding the doll they lost, or the doll they always wanted," she said. The latter category, among doll collectors, is almost limitless: Madame Alexander, American Girl, Toni the teenager, Sweet Sue; or the rare, sad-faced baby doll named Poor Pitiful Pearl that club member Wini Michaels had on display.
Bisque-faced dolls, composition dolls, cloth dolls or tiny, miniature dolls all were on hand at the club's 40th anniversary luncheon Sept. 8 at a local hotel. The luncheon theme — Native American Doll heritage — included a presentation on indigenous dolls from the Arctic, Alaska, Florida, the Plains and the Southwest, and the European productions of them that were made to display the tribal regalia.
Despite the enormous popularity of the American Girl doll series among young girls, Heidepriem blames computer games and other high-tech gadgets for usurping an interest in dolls among today's generation of girls, own great-granddaughter included, she said.
The UFDC, to which the Rapid City club belongs, has a junior club for young girls which is generating more interest in their hobby, she said.