If it were on an episode of “Antiques Roadshow,” a French doll and her clothing, newly on display at the Discovery Center, would definitely be a “find.”
The doll, dating from about the 1850s, has exquisite hand-made finery, which sparked the concept of children’s “fashion in Paris,” a doll appraiser told the museum.
The doll was gifted to the museum last year by longtime volunteer Barbara Robinson. The display, which opened on Valentine’s Day, is in the “Community Chest” exhibit space in the Wasco County Historical Museum wing. It will be there at least through the summer.
Susan Buce, who manages collections for the museum, spent a full week carefully measuring, describing and cataloging the 78-piece set, which the doll appraiser said was notable for its completeness and good condition.
“It was a lot of fun,” Buce said. “How many other jobs could you go to work and get paid to play with dolls?”
She said, “I was amazed at how there were so many different clothing and accessory items included with it, and the incredible detail. Hand stitching, cloth-covered buttons, even the little wallet had four little miniature metal coins in it.
“You could just picture somebody putting so much loving detail into each and every little hand stitch that was made.”
“Antiques Roadshow,” where people bring items for expert appraisal, came to the museum last August. Appraiser James Supp referred Buce to Billye Harris, who has appraised dolls for “Antiques Roadshow” since 2011.
Harris, who was emailed photos of the collection, was impressed.
“Your display is gorgeous,” Harris replied. “Thank you for taking care of this precious French doll and her wardrobe!”
Harris had the lowdown on the doll’s origin, saying the clothing was made by Louise Jennie Béreux, who was born in Paris in 1822. Béreux decided to be a tailor like her grandfather, and opened up shop in a corner of her father’s perfume store.
She collaborated with dollmaker Calixte Huret on costuming and accessorizing Huret’s dolls. The two “came up with a modern wardrobe, not for the adult lady but rather a younger more cheerful aged model,” Harris wrote. “Miss Béreux created confections of gowns, hats, capes, fancy carnival costumes, and other fine costumes. She also had her own labeled trunk (which you have in your collection!)”
Harris said she believed all or most of the clothing that came with the doll “is by this most desired and famous doll clothing designer.”
The cream of Paris society visited Béreux’ boutique for fashionable clothing and accessories for their daughters’ dolls. Her styles influenced Parisian tastes for both children and adult clothing in the 1850s and 1860s, Harris said.
Robinson, an expert on native plants who has worked on the grounds of the Discovery Center since before it opened, was gifted the doll from her longtime friend, who she met when the two attended Reed College.
Her friend was from Baltimore and traced her roots to the Mayflower. One ancestor was a colonial governor.
When the two women were younger, they’d “played” with the doll, she said, taking it out and admiring its finery.
Robinson knew the doll was old, fragile and delicate. “I always felt it was a museum piece, like it shouldn’t be something that I had. I’m not a doll collector. I knew this was quite an amazing thing.”
She knew it needed to be preserved in a way she could not do, so she gave it to the museum, no strings attached. “Anyway, I enjoyed it,” she said. When she got the doll, “I looked all through it, now it’s time to pass it on to people who could care for it better.”
The collection includes four dresses, nine hats, five pairs of shoes, three purses, five pairs of stockings, two books with printed text, a riding whip, and two parasols/umbrellas. And that’s just a partial list.
The collection also has a black servant boy, but it was not included in the display, Buce said, because the exhibit space is small “and we didn’t have enough space to really place the context on that particular item, and we wanted the exhibit to be focused on the fun of the doll and not all of the social mores of the time.”
The title sign for the exhibit reads “Mlle Béreux, Spécialite pour la confection et la Toilette de Poupées.” It translates as “Miss Béreux, Specialty for the making and the toiletry of dolls in all kinds.”
No decision has been made on whether to keep the doll, which doesn’t fit within the mission of focusing on Wasco County and Columbia Gorge history.
“It could potentially stay within our permanent collection or perhaps be sold with the money benefiting the museum,” Buce said.
Robinson is fine with whatever the museum decides. “I’m very glad I gave it to them, in part because I’m learning a lot about it, more than I would’ve on my own.”