The Mammy Doll, where history meets PC


February 2, 2014 by kittynh

I’m never sure how to explain the family Mammy doll.  My first inclination is to say “We’re not racists, really!”

I grew up in a fairly liberal family, where the issue of equality for everyone was an important topic of conversation. My family came from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  Maryland was a “border state” during the Civil War, with a state song that will make anyone cringe in shame after the first verse.  Our family though were firm supporters of the Union. My relatives served fighting for the North .Family diaries from the time show that slavery was the reason they had joined up.  The family morally believed slavery was unjust and immoral.  I’m told by the family historian we were the rather annoying abolitionist types to our slave owning neighbors.

Defending your family by saying,”Oh we’re not racist!” though is no excuse for making people uncomfortable.  Mammy doll doesn’t get a “pass” just because our family long ago fought on the right side of the Civil War.  I also dislike people that say “You know my OTHER (fill in minority) friends don’t find this offensive!”  It’s not my worry if a group will find this doll offensive.

If someone comes to my home, I want that person to be comfortable.  Not offending someone is often simply respecting their feelings.  I don’t know the personal and family history of every person that will visit me.  However, I would like as much as possible to have each person that visits me to be comfortable, not offended.


Needs some repair work

My problem is I own the family mammy doll.  This doll was made by my beloved grandmother as a doll to watch after my mother’s babydolls when my mother was away at school.  My own mother, when younger, was watched after by a wonderful caretaker while my grandmother worked.  Unlike most mothers in the neighborhood my grandmother had a career as a nurse she enjoyed and was proud of.  On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, you hired a black woman (or as my grandmother said “colored”) to help with child care and cooking if you worked full time.

This was the depression, the 1930’s, and work was scarce.  My grandmother’s nursing was an important part of the family income. The mammy doll is a reflection of what life was like then. When mom was away someone watched the children.  At that time in Maryland that person was more than likely black.  This was true not just for well to do families, my grandparents struggled as so many did during the depression.


The doll is not in the best of shape.  My grandmother learned sewing skills growing up in an orphanage run by the Episcopalian Church in Easton Maryland.  Her mother had died from burns while saving her children from a house fire. All her children lived.  The boys went to family, but the 2 girls went to the local orphanage.  My great grandfather visited when he could, and he never remarried.

My grandmother and her sister, and the other orphans. The Episcopalian Church ran this orphanage.

My grandmother and her sister, and the other orphans. The Episcopalian Church ran this orphanage.

If this sounds like “Jane Eyre”, it wasn’t. The girls grew up with a far better education than most women of the time received.  They were not allowed to leave the orphanage until they had a skill, which meant a choice of teacher or nurse.  My grandmother chose nursing and truly loved her work. The orphanage had the entire top floor dedicated to teaching the girls sewing.  My grandmother sewed her entire life and produced beautiful garments. She  sewed beautifully detailed dresses for me when I was a child.  Still,  she also produced the mammy doll.  The doll has dress, lovely apron, and petticoat.  There are lace accents on all the garments.


The problem is the face.  The face is a stereotype that went out of

the facial stereotype...

the facial stereotype…

favor long ago.  My grandmother lovingly cornrowed the yarn hair, and sewed the garments. She gave the doll a face like that she would have seen on other depictions of blacks  in cartoons and advertisements.  The doll sits, as it has for years, on the top shelf of a closet.  I’ve considered what to do with it.  I’d love to donate it to a museum perhaps, where the cultural aspects of it could be part of the description, but I also think there are examples in far better shape than this doll.

My own history of the doll was that it sat happily in a chair in a corner when I was a child.  My mother’s baby dolls had been loved too well and were thrown out long ago, but mammy doll survived. I never enjoyed playing with dolls, instead I loved stuffed animals. My stuffed animals were fine to run around unsupervised when I was not there, so I imagined Mammy was enjoying a well earned retirement.

The chair the doll sat in, sits empty in a corner of a room.  I often think of plunking the doll in the chair as happy reminder of my grandmother’s home.  Then I think, “What if someone sees the doll?  Would they be offended?”  The doll is a reminder of a time which I hope is long gone, though some tea party depictions of Obama are unhappy reminders this facial stereotype persists.  

I also worried about this issue when writing a blog post about Thanksgiving.  I collect old children’s book, many in horrible shape, as I like to scan the old illustrations.  I enjoy “saving” illustrations that are soon to be lost.  I had a nice one featuring a cute Thanksgiving story, but the 1920’s illustration worried me.  While not featuring the over the top big eyes and lips, I worried it could be offensive to some people.  “Offensive” means making someone uncomfortable. It’s not up to me to decide if something is or isn’t offensive for someone else, it’s up to them to decide.  I’m posting it here to show the fine line.  It seems fine to me, but my rule of thumb is, if I think twice about it, then I shouldn’t use it.


vintage children’s illustrations of racial minorities that are difficult to use. The little boy has just help supply a Thanksgiving meal for the animals in the story.

Another example, this vintage post card of cats.  The servant is the all black cat.  This one was rather difficult, but I did decide to share and use it.  It’s cats.  I do also think the cats look like cats.  So my call on this one, it was fine for the limited use I wished to make of it.

Vintage cats, though I think real cats would be "oh good, more snacks!"

Vintage cats, though I think real cats would be “oh good, more snacks!”

Family history can sit on a shelf for now.  I hope one day the doll can find a good home, where historical context and education is part of her new role in life.

7 thoughts on “The Mammy Doll, where history meets PC

  1. Kelly says:

    I have a mammy doll for my kitchen everytime I through it away it comes back and sometimes the doll is in my basement sometimes not would you have a clue what was going on

  2. OkayToday says:

    I am only 49 and I had a mammy in the Low Country SC mansion of my grandparents in the summer. She did everything for us. Our granddad was much older than our grandmother, which was not unusual among the wealthy in the first half of the 20th century south. He was born in – not kidding – 1875. Yes….1875! And he was a manufacturing magnate. My grandmother was born in 1901. They had a beautiful home and practically owned the entire town, where they lived. We however, lived in the big city – Atlanta.

  3. morningstargray says:

    i grew up in the south, and through the course of my life i’ve learned that no matter what you do, someone is going to get their feelings hurt. if you wish to put the doll in the chair in the corner, do it. don’t worry so much about hurting someone else’s feelings. if you wish to get rid of the doll, i’ll gladly take her off your hands. i’d even be willing to pay for her. i have a small collection of dolls and she would be a nice addition to the collection.


  4. mamie watts says:

    I have 3 mammy dolls with the flour sack dresses on. One small, and two large ones which is hand made. I love them and would not depart from them for anything!!

  5. The real crime of the Mammy Doll is that it is a reminder of the limited black representation allowed in pop culture in the 1930’s. Had the doll been on the market with say, great black baseball players of the time, which there were many, it would be viewed as another black pop culture artifact. After the Civil War any time a black American did anything out of character with the limited cultural black models allowed by the politics of the time, it was considered controversial. This continued until the mid 50’s. Then Black achievement slowly began to be celebrated.
    There is nothing wrong with the mammy doll that a different politics of the time would not have solved. Had Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas, Satchel Page, Jessie Daniel Ames, Billie Holiday dolls and other representations been available, the Mammy doll would be a mere whimsical footnote.

  6. Sarah Dietrich says:

    Although I applaud your ability to try and empathize, I often wonder if we perpetuate and worsen assumptions that just were not true. True that some depictions of people of color were in that time very offensive, but the Mammy doll was far from a derogatory depiction. What you failed to mention was in fact children grew to love their caretakers and this is actually what birthed the Mammy doll. It was the endearing love of children which demanded a doll to represent that. People have features, and your doll is not a negative representation. It’s a doll. Most dolls are not exact representations of actual features. I think she’s lovely. It makes me wonder what is the issue. I’m sorry, just as I have an upturned nose because I’m Scotch Irish, All other types of people have distinct features. By denying those as normal, you are in fact making them seem “ugly” or negative. They are beautiful and their features are too, so again, if you have an issue with it, then that seems like a you problem. Sometimes we breed and edge prejudice along because we find something offensive when its not. We read into things to try and find a sinister reason for it, when instead sometimes it is the EXACT opposite. Also, what you failed to mention is, that after the War, the Mammy doll was used as a propaganda tool to help with integration. It was used to normalize the population and help acclimate them to living with people in a different and new way. Judging the past with modern eyes is a very dangerous thing to do. I prefer to have perspective and to appreciate that your grandmother sought to honor the person she entrusted her children with. That is what I would say if someone came to my house and was offended by the doll. Jmo

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