A handstitched, Black sock-doll found hidden in the attic rafters of a home in East Burke, raised speculation about the well-worn possession.
Dating back to 1851 and gifted to the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village by Stella Halpern, the doll’s purchase at an auction in 2003 sparked interest a decade later among a group of students at the East Burke School who undertook research to determine if the house was indeed a stop on Vermont’s Underground Railroad.
Handmade cloth rag dolls, sold at bazaars and in marketplaces, were popular in the American colonies as early as the 1630s and began being mass produced in the 1830s. Black rag dolls, made for enslaved African American children by their mothers and other relatives using scraps of fabric and pieces of worn clothing, have been found at numerous Underground Railroad sites, where they may have been left behind in the dark in a rush to escape.
Vermont citizens played a leadership role in the fight against slavery. Vermont was the first state to prohibit slavery as a colony in 1777, and Vermont’s Anti-slavery Society was formed in 1834, a year after the American Anti-Slavery Society was created in Boston by noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. By 1837, 89 local anti-slavery societies had been established in Vermont, with more than 8,000 members. Three years later, the state passed a law requiring all alleged fugitive slaves captured to be brought before a jury to guard against the kidnapping of free Blacks. This rich history offers a backdrop for proposing another explanation for the presence of Black doll in the recesses of a mid-nineteenth-century household.
In 1850, the federal Fugitive Slave Act, requiring citizens in all states to return runaway enslaved individuals to their owners, led to a surge in abolitionist activity. Two years later, the release of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whose main character is from Vermont, created a firestorm, and fundraisers to support local and national anti-slavery causes exploded in number. Operating for nearly 30 years, Christmastime fairs were established by the American Anti-slavery Society’s women’s auxiliaries, supporting one-third of the society’s national budget, fully funding local chapters, and contributing resources for the publication and dissemination of anti-slavery messages through Garrison’s The Liberator, the leading abolitionist newspaper. The largest of these extravaganzas was held in Boston.
According to Teresa A. Goddu in her book Selling Anti-Slavery, anti-slavery fairs, often described as exhibitions, became markers of social class and refinement. The most fashionable shopping event of the year, visiting these venues for a ten-cent admission fee and purchasing items on display were viewed as status symbols and signs of social superiority. Unlike today, social status at the time had more to do with moral values, cultural characteristics, and sensibilities than wealth. And being anti-slavery was considered a sign of sophistication and virtue.
Gift books, containing literature, drawings, and abolitionist images and messages were extremely popular, as were wooden, wax, and porcelain dolls. The first Black dolls sold to support the abolitionist cause were made in the 1840s by an African American woman in Salem, Mass., who taught sewing to Black children. During the 1850s, it became common for White children from Northern abolitionist families to own and play with Black dolls. Famed Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, whose father was a progressive abolitionist, owned one as a child, and hundreds of these dolls were sold at fairs to further interest in abolitionism while spurring financial support in what became the most significant and consistent source of income for local anti-slavery societies.
As it turns out, an exploration of land records in the Town Clerk’s Office by the students from East Burke led them to the identity of the former owner of the house in which the mystery doll was discovered. He told the students that the doll belonged to his White grandmother and that she had brought it with her from Boston when she was a girl.
Regardless of whether the sock-doll at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village was a forgotten passenger on the Underground Railroad or a symbol of social status given by abolitionist parents to their White child, the artifact invites reflection on the past—on the changing nature of social status, the role of women in one of nation’s most critical social movements, and how early commercialization of Christmas was tied to a moral cause. At the same time, it reminds us of how the objects we collect can tell our stories in ways that reveal not just interests but values as well.
Spencer Kuchle is Associate Director for Collections and Interpretation at the Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village.