Small porcelain recreations of deceased United States first ladies sounds like something to avoid. Don’t be fooled. This exhibit, currently on display at the LBJ Library, is more adorable than it sounds.
The First Ladies Collection, created by renowned doll makers the Alexander Doll Company, depicts the country’s first ladies and first hostesses as 14-inch dolls wearing replica inaugural gowns. Series one of the first ladies was manufactured in 1976 to commemorate the nation’s Bicentennial celebration and ceased production in 1990 after the death of “Madame” Beatrice Alexander, owner of the Alexander Doll Company. Ranging from Martha Washington to Pat Nixon, the collection consists of 38 figures issued in seven series.
Visitors of the exhibit gaze into the case, taking in precious details like Mary Todd Lincoln’s crown of flowers and the delicate flip of Mamie Eisenhower’s hair.
“Gosh, they’re pretty,” one visitor exclaims.
A young girl around three or four years old runs to the case, face pressed to the glass, to get a closer look at the little first ladies.
The classic wide-eyed, baby-faced look of Alexander’s dolls complements the delicate elements of the inaugural gowns beautifully. In addition to their aesthetic value, the pieces offer an adorably doll-sized glimpse into our nation’s past.
“For research purposes, it allows us to get an idea of the fashions from the different time periods,” curator of the exhibit Michael MacDonald said. “From a visitor’s point of view, it allows the visitor to actually see inaugural gowns. They may not be the originals — they’re on dolls — but most people don’t get to the Smithsonian to see the actual inaugural gowns. Sometimes this is the closest that they’re going to get.”
Even though the library has owned the entire collection since its donation in 2007, the library had no venue to showcase it properly until its 2012 renovations. Twenty five of the first ladies now line the shelves in the library’s Great Hall. The current selection includes Martha Washington, Pat Nixon and, of course, Lady Bird Taylor Johnson. All 38 dolls can be viewed on the library’s iOS application.
Alexander herself was an emblem of the modern American woman. In an era where women worked in their husbands’ shadows, Alexander founded her own company in 1923 and turned some of the country’s most beloved characters into highly collectible dolls. The little ladies at the library prove the 90-year-old company’s creations are as captivating as ever.
“Every time I come up here, there are people looking at the dolls,” MacDonald said of the exhibit’s popularity.
These miniature women do indeed take visitors through 185 years of fashion, from Washington’s hoop skirt and lace-trimmed sleeves to Nixon’s canary yellow column dress and crystal-encrusted bolero jacket and everywhere in between.
“You can tell through the times how the fashion changed,” said Margaret Miller, web editor for the LBJ Foundation. “It really does reflect the sensibilities of the first lady and also the times they lived in.”
Beyond the sensibilities of fashion, the First Ladies Collection has brought a simple, overwhelming sentiment to visitors young and old: joy.
“I think the women get nostalgic for when they were little girls,” Miller said. “And these women bring in little girls who don’t know about Madame Alexander, so it’s a teachable moment.”
The collection is on display at the LBJ Library through Nov. 24.
What: Madame Alexander’s “First Ladies Collection”
Where: LBJ Library
When: Now through Nov. 24