The Artifact of the Month for December 2011 was a doll that once belonged to a little girl named Bertha Lutz from Marietta. Bertha kept this doll for 88 years, from the day she got it until the day she died.
Bertha was born on December 15, 1912, to Locie A. and Clara Belle (Helms) Lutz and grew up on a farm in the countryside near New Philadelphia and Marietta.
Bertha shared the story of her special doll with her family and enjoyed retelling the tale. Two of her daughter-in-laws, Lynn Pensinger (married to Bertha’s son, Ray) and DeeDee (married to Bertha’s son, George) vividly recall Bertha telling them her childhood memories about the doll.
Bertha was the youngest of four sisters and the story of the doll starts with “sister envy." The story Bertha told is that she remembered her older sister getting a baby doll as a present. Bertha did not have a baby doll and was envious. She yearned for a baby doll of her very own, just like her older sister's doll.
So Bertha’s uncle, Arthur Helms, (brother of Bertha’s mother) decided he would fulfill Bertha’s wishes and get her the doll of her dreams. Helms, a bachelor who presumably did not know very much about dolls, or little girls, bought for Bertha what he considered a wonderful doll – the doll now on display at the museum. Bertha remembered getting the doll in 1919, when she was six, or almost seven years old.
Advertisements from around 1919 show dolls similar to Bertha’s costing about $9.00. Historical price calculators indicate that $9.00 from 1919 would equal about $113.00 today. It is obvious from the amount he spent on a doll that Bertha’s uncle really wanted to make his niece very happy.
As Lynn Pensinger remembers Bertha telling her, “She wished for a baby doll, but was disappointed when she was given the 'big girl' doll from her uncle."
Being about 26 inches tall, Bertha’s doll is not a baby doll that a little girl could cuddle and hold. In fact, Bertha never played with the doll at all. Bertha remembered her mother saying the doll was “too nice” to play with. Bertha’s mother decided to place the doll on a metal stand, so it would not be ruined. The doll was displayed on a shelf, never to be played with.
As time went on and Bertha grew up, she began to warm to her special doll. Seeing it every day of her life gave her an appreciation for this doll. Respecting her mother’s wishes to keep the doll in pristine, original condition, Bertha never played with the doll. But she grew to recognize the significance of the doll –how it had been given to her out of love from her Uncle Arthur and for that reason, her mother had wanted her to preserve the doll. From being initially extremely displeased because it was not a baby doll, Bertha changed her feelings and began to love the doll for itself.
As a young woman of 23, Bertha Lutz married George H. Pensinger on November 12, 1934, in Good Hope. From 1934-1938, George and Bertha lived in St. Louis. Even when she moved to St. Louis as a young married woman, Bertha took her doll with her.
In 1938, Bertha and George returned to the area, where George farmed until his death in 2009. Everyone in the family remembers that Bertha loved farm life and the family thinks that maybe Bertha convinced George to move back to the farm. When they came back to the Marietta area, Bertha brought her doll back with her.
DeeDee Pensinger recalls that Bertha “kept the doll on display in her bedroom, up through the last years of her life, and that she really enjoyed it very much and had replacement clothes made by a dressmaker to resemble the original clothes.”
Lynn Pensinger remembers that the doll was “very treasured, very special to her-- She was really very fond of it.”
At first glance, Bertha’s doll might appear to be a china doll, but it is not. Bertha’s doll is a “composition doll." Composition is a substance made of glue mixed with sawdust or wood pulp. Composition dolls, also called “compo dolls," were marketed as an improvement over the china dolls previously produced, as a composition doll was not as fragile. Most composition dolls were made from the early 1900s until the late 1940s, when plastic began to be used for making dolls.
With striking blue eyes with no eyelids, painted eyebrows and eyelashes and painted red lips with an open mouth, Bertha’s doll with jointed knees and wrists, is similar to many of the doll models produced during the 1910s.
Although her clothes are not original, the replacement clothes, according to family history, closely resemble the original. Her outfit consists of a white mid-calf length dress trimmed with lace at neck and cuffs with a ruffled hem, a yellow ribbon around her waist and a matching yellow bow in her brown curly hair.
At the age of 94 years old, just a little less than a month from her 95th birthday, Bertha died on November 19, 2007, after 73 years of marriage and after keeping her special doll for 88 years. When Bertha died, the family decided to pass the doll on to one of Bertha’s granddaughters.
Lynn Pensinger is the mother of Ashley, the granddaughter who inherited the doll. However, after getting the doll home and realizing how old the doll was and its connection to the family history, the family decided that perhaps a museum might be a more appropriate place for the doll.
Because Bertha had grown up and spent most of her life in the Marietta area, the family wanted the doll to stay in West Central Illinois, so the Western Illinois Museum was the logical place to donate the doll.
Now the doll will be preserved at the museum for future generations, where many can learn the story of a little girl from Marietta and the doll she cherished and kept her entire life.
From an essay by Heather Munro