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On Creative Agency: Barbie Dolls and Welfare Canneries

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 06, 2013

Mattel’s Barbie doll made her first public appearance at a New York toy fair on March 9, 1959. I made my own debut a day later, somewhat west of New York and with a considerably less elaborate wardrobe and hairdo. My near-twin and I did not meet until Christmas morning of 1969, when a Talking Barbie (“Let’s go shopping!”) greeted me under the Christmas tree.

That Talking Barbie, with her sisters Living Barbie (whom I called “Babs”) and Growin’ Pretty Hair Barbie (anyone that glamorous could go by nothing less than “Barbara”), became the last dolls of my childhood, helping me transition from child to teenager in an era when 12 or 13 was not too sophisticated to play with dolls.


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I still have all three dolls, and you can see from pictures on this page that I took pretty good care of them, and their accessories, whether purchased comb and brush or homemade books and necklaces. I loved the clothes, and coveted the perfect miniatures of ball gowns and stewardess uniforms and business suits and tennis outfits on display at the store. But I couldn’t buy them – I saved up my quarters and dimes, and regretfully passed up my monthly purchase of a Nancy Drew mystery, in order to buy the two most beautiful outfits ever – the soft pink peignoir set with fuzzy slippers (modeled here by Barbara; her joints no longer want to work, though, so I couldn’t put her arms through the robe’s sleeves), and the vivid, exciting yellow raincoat with its leopard fur trim.

With those exceptions, plus the purchase of a few cards of shoes and hangers, my Barbie days were strictly a homemade world – and what a ticket to personal creativity that proved, at just the right age!

My very first stitches with my mother’s sewing machine are captured in a pair of bell-bottom pants – it was 1970, after all! – and a rust-colored button-front jacket. They may be tiny, but they were more complex than many women’s casual clothes today. Darts! Facings! Mandarin collar! They were followed first by a growing wardrobe of Barbie dresses, shirts, skirts, suits, jumpsuits, and pants … and followed a little later by a wardrobe for me. By the time I was out of high school, I was sewing all my own dresses for school, work, and eventually mission. Those were well-made clothes, great fabrics, good construction, better than anything I could have afforded to buy at the mall. (One anomaly, perhaps, is that while I always insisted my own skirts reach my knees, I don’t seem to have hesitated to clothe my dolls in miniskirts and sleeveless dresses.)

In Primary in those days, girls learned to cross-stitch the summer we were 9, knit the summer we were 10, and crochet the summer we were 11. That is, most girls did. But most girls didn’t have my mother, who taught me to embroider (and not just cross stitch, either – I learned French knots and satin stitch and lazy daisy stitch) at 6, to crochet with fine thread at 7, and to knit at 9. By the time Barbie came along, I could knock out a pineapple lace doily in a couple of evenings, and my Barbie wardrobe benefitted by that skill. I designed and crocheted an ice skating outfit with attached shorts and fur trim, worn mostly by Babs, whose plastic body had far more joints than the others, so she could be posed in more realistic ice skating stances than her prim sisters.

Crocheted vests were popular with girls my age, and my mother made me one – so I made one for my dolls. Crocheted ponchos became popular the next year, and my mother made me one – so I made one for my dolls. I crocheted doll-size doilies and rugs and bath mats (a Kleenex box made the perfect bathtub) and this set of bath towel, face towel, and washcloth.

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I made bedding and tablecloths and aprons and bandanas. Mom was very generous with her ragbag and scrapbag and sewing notions, and only once complained when I cut out a green dress from the long edge of a length of fabric instead of from the corner.

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My days with Barbie were also the last days of the Relief Society bazaars. In my first year of Barbiedom, my mother took my nonmember aunt to a bazaar in the Reno Third Ward. Near the end of the bazaar, Mom discovered a large box of home-sewn Barbie clothes that hadn’t been put on display. When she asked about them, the woman in charge looked down her nose and said she hadn’t put them out because she knew nobody would be interested in them when the stores had such beautiful doll clothes for sale. My mother started a mini-riot by exclaiming how beautiful they were, and holding them up. Other women were just as excited to see them as Mom was – those store-bought clothes were danged expensive, after all – and I benefitted by having both my mother and my aunt there to buy me handfuls of clothes. (Only later, and after an adult conversation with Mom, did I understand why she had made such a fuss. The woman who had put so much time and effort into making those clothes was there, and must have felt humiliated that her offering was judged “not good enough.” By being as demonstrative as Mom had been, and stirring up an enthusiastic reaction among other buyers, Mom showed the woman who made them how much better than “good enough” her work was.)

So … what? Other than Relief Society bazaars and girls learning needle crafts in Primary in the ’60s, what justification is there for showing a Barbie collection on a Mormon history blog? I wasn’t thinking about that yesterday (I’m writing this on Sunday), when I opened my old Barbie case for the first time in at least 24 years. I spent a nostalgic couple of hours looking through the bits and pieces, and remembering when I had sewed this, and how I found the parts to make that. The vest and poncho sent me to a drawer to find the things Mom made for me 40 years ago (and while you might wonder just how much junk I have to be able to match up my Barbie clothes to my own wardrobe this way, there isn’t much, really. Outside of books and furniture, all the relics I have from my childhood up to age 35 or later would fit in a 3-foot cube. It’s just that these two pieces of clothing happen to be among those relics.)

But this morning I read a snarky little remark on another blog’s post about LDS canneries: “Seems to [m]e that it is a huge waste of our tithing dollars to be running canneries at all. There are lots of private enterprises that do this much more efficiently.” And I suddenly realized that my old doll collection was very Mormony.

“Efficiency” is very seldom the only, or even any, goal in Mormon practice. It isn’t “efficient” to have a lay clergy, one without formal training and that constantly revolves so that new leaders have to be brought up to speed every few years. Home teaching is not an “efficient” way to find out if anybody needs help changing a light bulb or painting their house. Missionary work is not the most “efficient” use of those tens of thousands of man- and woman-hours invested every day.

But we do it because there is value in our doing it, not staffing it out, not purchasing it.

We could buy canned goods from a private enterprise to fill welfare orders; we could pay somebody else to put together hygiene kits for our purchase; we could even pay a professional agency to evaluate the needs of the poor in our wards and deliver goods from the back of a delivery van. After all, we do hire professionals to build our buildings, manage our public relations, and fly our missionaries to and from their missions. It’s not like we have to do everything with our own two hands.

But there is value in our doing many things ourselves. I loved the professionally-made clothes I bought for my dolls; I’m much prouder of the ones I made myself. I remember the closeness to my mother as she taught me to read patterns. I remember the sense of achievement each time a tiny garment was finished. I remember the power in designing my own clothes for which no pattern was available. I learned to do, not just to have; I learned to produce, not just to consume. I became a creative agent.

When we come together to do work with our own hands – whether that’s picking apples or canning applesauce or carrying cans of dried apples from the Bishop’s Storehouse to the home of a hungry family – we establish and reinforce personal bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood. We’re producing, rather than consuming. We’re giving of ourselves, not the substitute of ourselves that is our wallets. We’re creating and cooperating and giving in a way that may not be as “efficient” as paying somebody else to do the work, but we maintain the fragile ties of community that are so easily broken in the world of modern independence. A person without money to give can join in producing goods to relieve suffering on exactly the same footing as the richest ward member who works at his side. A person who receives welfare support can donate her time to support others, becoming a giver as well as a beneficiary. When we sew clothing and make quilts and assemble hygiene kits for Humanitarian Services, we can’t help but have in mind the people who will benefit by our work – it’s a person-to-person gift. The person who will be warmed by this quilt is my sister, even though I will never know her name or see her face; from my hand to yours, this quilt is my gift to you, because we are sisters, daughters of the same Father.

Doing, rather than buying, makes us creative agents.



23 Comments »

  1. Right on, Ardis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 6, 2013 @ 7:11 am

  2. Yesterday as I was singing “Have I done any good?” the line “love’s labor has merit alone” stood out to me. I love to sew and make quilts, but I know they don’t save me money. A zipper alone for my daughter’s dresses costs $1.50, then $5 for a clearance yard of beautiful cotton, and maybe a $1 for a pattern. I can find fully lined, well-made dresses on the Carter’s clearance rack for about that same price point. But I love to sew for her.

    My daughter turns two this summer and I’m going to buy her a doll, then start making matching clothes for them. I’m eagerly looking forward to the day when my daughter helps me design and construct items, and then starts her own sewing projects. She’s already trying to load fabric under the presser foot of my sewing machine, so those days might not be too far off.

    Barbie clothes intimidate me. I’m very impressed by your handiwork.

    Comment by HokieKate — May 6, 2013 @ 7:12 am

  3. J.’s responses to the “private enterprises that do this much more efficiently” comment referred readers to Sam MB’s post about the value of cooperative welfare work.

    HokieKate, I think the economics of home sewing were different in the 1970s. It really did make financial sense to sew then. But I found after returning from my mission in the mid-’80s, things had changed: fabric stores were hard to find, prices on fabrics and notions and patterns had gone sky high, and the fabrics available were too often cheap, inferior stuff. I stopped sewing clothes at that point, except for Halloween costumes and aprons and that kind of thing. I hope your anticipated sewing experiences with and for your daughter turn out to be all you hope for!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 6, 2013 @ 7:28 am

  4. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

    Comment by Mina — May 6, 2013 @ 7:40 am

  5. I have to admit, Mina, that I kept thinking of you as I put this together, and wished you could be there with me, playing with those tiny shoes and purses …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 6, 2013 @ 7:57 am

  6. Ardis, thanks for the nostalgia trip. Although I wasn’t raised in a Mormon home, my world often intersected with Mormons. Most of my Barbie’s clothes were lovingly handmade–by Mormons–I remember two ball gowns in particular and a spectacular hand crocheted wedding dress that I still have. My great nieces love to play with it.

    Comment by blueagleranch — May 6, 2013 @ 8:17 am

  7. Your Mom was a great lady at the Bazaar.

    I remember those bazaars. Get this, Seattleites. Ours were held in the Bellevue Square outside of Frederick & Nelsons. I remember the year everybody was making huge, stuffed Winnie the Poohs – probably violating Disney’s trademark (making it 1966?). It must have been our ward RS’s assignment. But there were piles of Winnie and pieces in process all over our house. Then we little boys had to help haul them to the bazaar. Guess what we all got for Christmas that year?

    Good point about the values of inneficiency, helping build character in young boys hauling stuffed bears – and whatever it did for the RS Ladies.

    Comment by Grant — May 6, 2013 @ 8:40 am

  8. [threadjack]

    Grant, I don’t know how old you are, but am I correct that you know either my parents or siblings? I grew up in Bellevue.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 6, 2013 @ 9:04 am

  9. [threadjack cont.]

    I’m almost 56. I was in the Kirkland, then Bothell, then Redmond Wards (all without moving – and all within the Seattle East Stake), so yeah, we knew some Bellevue people. I don’t remember the Stapley name but my parents probably would. We lived on Finn Hill above Juanita (Kirkland). And we attended church in the Bellevue building by the Chocolate store while the wardhouse on Rose Hill was constructed.

    Comment by Grant — May 6, 2013 @ 9:18 am

  10. Awesome. Always good to know another eastsider (though things have changed a bit here since the sixties).

    [/threadjack]

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 6, 2013 @ 9:24 am

  11. Great post, nice to think about. I still do a fair amount of my own car maintenance, plumbing repairs, and home remodel and repair. I hate to pay somebody for all of that, when I can do it myself, and most times, enjoy the work. Nice reminder that we are about building communities and cooperation.
    [new threadjack] From this Seattle Eastsider, I had no idea, Ardis, that you grew up in Reno. My folks lived there for about 12 years in the Mount Rose 3rd ward, I believe, from about 1971 to 1983. My wife and I lived there when we first got married in 1972. I really liked Reno, but we moved back to Utah so we could both finish college. [/threadjack]

    Comment by kevinf — May 6, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

  12. I was in Reno (Stead,really) for only a year, kevinf, between longer residence in Utah and California. For a place I lived so briefly and, really, so young, I’m surprised by the number and clarity of my memories. The Washoe County Library was the prettiest public library I’ve ever known, and was the site of my very first (and frustrated,alas) desires to do genealogical research.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 6, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

  13. Handiwork, crochet, knitting, Relief Society bazaars. You and my dad must be operating on the same wavelength on this, Ardis; he just put up a post with some pictures of handiwork his great grandmother did, complete with a picture of her surrounded by handmade quilts and doilies and the rest. (Crochet and Needle Work by Margaret Godfrey Jarvis Overson)

    Anyway, what an amazing colorful collection of doll clothes. Beautiful!

    Comment by Amy T — May 6, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

  14. I enjoy most of what’s posted on this blog, but the personal posts are my favorites.

    i keep a few items from childhood, not so much for the items per se as for the memories they trigger.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by The Other Clark — May 6, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

  15. Thanks for the perspective on the economics of clothing, Ardis. I’ve often heard stories of mothers lovingly crafting wardrobes in the 50s, 60s, and 70s to save money, but that didn’t fit with my experience today of supplies being so expensive.

    Comment by HokieKate — May 6, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

  16. Very nice. Both the handiwork, and the thoughts. I grew up with that “it’s always better to do it yourself” mentality, the result of handed-down pioneer (and Depression-era) thinking and more immediate economic realities. I often struggle between with the balance between doing things myself and “it would be cheaper and easier to just buy it!”

    Thank you for the reminder of the intangible benefits of the DIY philosophy.

    Comment by lindberg — May 6, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

  17. Sorry I’ve been so absent in my comments here, Ardis. I swear, I am still mopping up at college from the after-effects of Sandy. I have a stalwart band of students who lost homes last semester and had to take Incompletes; on top of my usual teaching, I’ve been tutoring them so they can complete those classes.

    Heaven is one big Relief Society Bazaar in my dreams.

    Comment by Mina — May 6, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

  18. The last major project I did here at the house was replacing the old toilet. I should have taken photos so I could have shared my good fortune with all of you–although that job, like replacing the brake pads (back when I owned a car) or adjusting the cables on my bicycle so it shifts and brakes smoothly, doesn’t really lend itself to this sort of display. The satisfaction that comes from doing something oneself, and making it work, though, is the same.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 6, 2013 @ 8:02 pm

  19. I started sewing doll clothes about age 6. I still have all of my patterns, including those I made up myself. Then I graduated to sewing all of my clothes. Later when I got tired of some of my Tyrolian print dresses, I cut them down to see dresses for my little sister. I sewed all of my formals and hers and after I married I even tried a suit for my husband, which was a disaster. I quit sewing the year everyone took up sewing Levi’s. after taking hours for every one of my boy’s pants and figuring I could save money by taking on another piano student and buying the Levi’s

    I still kept up with all of my handwork, for myself and the RS bazaars, until arthritis and three surgeries on each thumb put an end to that.

    Comment by Maurine ward — May 7, 2013 @ 12:22 am

  20. Ardis, I didn’t start on Barbies like you did–that came later when I made clothes for my daughter. Most of my dolls were baby dolls.

    Comment by Maurine ward — May 7, 2013 @ 12:27 am

  21. I love this. And am a firm believer in work and the power of creating. My brain functions better when I have projects.

    Comment by JanieceJ — May 7, 2013 @ 3:07 am

  22. Mark B., now that you’ve connected home made things to house repair, I realize that is how I create now. I buy houses and remodel them up to rent. The satisfaction is immense, but the problem is that I’m the ultimate pack rat. I have to keep the whole house instead of packing a box with my creations.

    I love creating and seeing what other people create.

    Comment by Carol — May 7, 2013 @ 7:44 am

  23. As one who spent a goodly amount of time making a casual shirt for his teenager this past weekend, I add my amen. P.S., it still needs buttonholes and buttons, but then it’s done!

    Comment by Chad Too — May 7, 2013 @ 11:31 am

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