Shipping room at the Montreuil doll factor (1888) by La NatureThe Strong National Museum of Play
Pierre Jumeau entered the doll business in 1841 when he married Adélaïde Mayothe, niece of dollmaker Lucius-Junius Herissey. Jumeau soon built his own company with 65 dressmakers, tailors, menders, leather workers, and hat trimmers focused on cost-control and quality.
Exporting Haute Couture
As Jumeau became the world’s foremost doll manufacturer, his dolls advertised French high fashion. The jury at the 1849 Paris Exposition awarded the company a bronze medal. “The clothed doll is not only a plaything, but often serves to a foreigner as a model of our fashions.”
Make Dolls, Not War
Jumeau won a Medal of Progress at the 1873 Vienna Exhibition. Describing Jumeau’s dolls, one reporter gushed, “Mr. Jumeau of Paris makes doll heads of glazed porcelain with the greatest perfection. He has surpassed in beauty the products we used to buy from [Germany].”
In 19th century America, influential cultural commentators such as Lydia Maria Child stressed pragmatic playthings. Girls should sew doll clothes rather than indulge in finery. By contrast, early Jumeau dolls celebrated the fashion created in Paris, where the dolls were made.
When Pierre retired around 1878, his son Emile, a trained architect, took over Jumeau. He ran the firm with the same determination as his father. His wife, Ernestine, brought her tremendous fashion sense to the business. Under their leadership, the company reached its zenith.
What makes a doll popular? Emile Jumeau found a winning formula with his Bébé dolls. Named for the French word for “baby,” these dolls looked like young children, not like the grown ladies previous dolls had resembled. Girls liked playing with a doll that looked like them.
Only the Best for Bébé
Ernestine supplied fine wardrobes for the Bébés that showcased the latest colors and styles. More than 200 women sewed the pieces. Buyers marveled at the tailored dresses and hats. Some customers purchased factory-clad Jumeaus. A wealthy few even bought additional clothing.
Dear Little Mama
Doll play has long reinforced maternal expectations. Emile’s savvy marketing materials underlined the need for gentle and nurturing girls. In Letter of a Jumeau Baby to Her Little Mother, a booklet packaged with Jumeaus, a doll explains how delighted she is to have a new mother.
Emile was both a savvy businessman and inventor. In 1885, he devised a method for making a doll’s eyelids close by turning a metal handle at the back of the doll’s head. He later obtained a patent for “sleep eyes” with eyelashes that gave dolls a more lifelike appearance.
A Marvelous Monstrosity
Thomas Edison thought his Singing Doll, first sold in 1890, would be a hit. It used wax cylinders to recite nursery rhymes, but the screechy voice horrified listeners and the mechanism broke easily. Disgruntled customers returned the malfunctioning toys and the product failed.
Despite Edison’s commercial flop, Emile collaborated with the clockmaker Henri Lioret to release a similar talking doll in 1893. It sold with cylinders in a variety of languages and recited phrases such as “Hello, my dear little Mommy,” but it had limited commercial success.
Jumeau made musical dolls activated by geared clockworks inside the body. One creation blew on a bubble pipe. Another pulled the string of a toy windmill. In another scene, two dolls served each other tea.
The Société Française de Fabrication de Bébés et Jouets
By 1895, cost competition from German doll manufacturers spurred Jumeau to join the Société Française de Fabrication de Bébés et Jouets (SFBJ) conglomerate to cut production expenses.
SFBJ’s most famous dolls were the princess dolls presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1938. To create the elaborate doll wardrobes, special fabrics had been woven at the silk mills of Lyon, artists designed patterns, and seamstresses contributed fine handiwork.
Conclusion: Not the End of an Era
SFBJ dissolved in 1958, but Jumeau dolls endure as treasured mementoes of play past. For more than a century, the Jumeau company succeeded by celebrating fashion, embracing innovation, and giving girls beautiful playthings.