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by Bettyanne Twigg

     It is said that the history of dolls is the history of mankind.   Children mimic their mothers, and the first dolls were probably found objects that resembled the human shape.  Dolls are made of rag, stone, bone, wood, wax, china…anything that can be formed into a human likeness. Children love them for reasons beyond their materials. They are synonymous with childhood and innocence. Because of that perception, they are very effective implements of deceit and concealment. Who would suspect a beautifully dressed child’s toy of illegally transporting clandestine messages or other items of value beneath her silken skirts?


This painted and carved figure has a large rectangular cavity inside her wooden skirt.  She is a religious icon, perhaps meant to represent the Virgin Mary or a female saint.  Her gilded base slants forward so that she is easily observed from below. The face and hands are exquisitely finished, but the parts of her body meant to be hidden by clothing are crude and unpainted.  A hole in the top of her head once secured a halo or elaborate headdress. Such figures were dressed in costly fabric robes heavily embroidered with gold threads, and decorated with pearls and jewels. The clothing would completely conceal the hidden compartment in her skirt. It would have been a perfect place for a reliquary that protected some sacred object or treasure.

Henry IV, of France sent his intended bride, Marie de Medici, dolls that modeled the latest sumptuous fashions at the French Court. These varied in size, some even large enough to permit their owners to share their stylish apparel. Others were small ambassadors of mode, easily packed and dispatched to carry the latest patterns abroad.   Fashionable ladies, and I suspect, fashionable men, often had multiple dolls, each wearing the latest designs from the tips of their small shoes to the miniature jewels in their coiffed hair. The demand for French fashions did not abate when countries went to war, and in the early 1700s the Abbe Provost observed…” By an act of gallantry which is worthy of being noted in the chronicles of history for the benefit of the ladies, the ministers of both courts (France and England) granted a special pass to the mannequin, that pass was always respected, and during the times of greatest enmity experienced on both sides the mannequin was the one object which remained unmolested.” What a splendid carrier they would make for the exchange of information and small items of all kinds! I immediately envisioned valuable information, lists, maps and gems being transported beneath the soft draperies of the ladies, fully protected from discovery by vanity.

During the Civil War the women of the South used dolls to smuggle medicines.  In “Strange true stories of Louisiana” by George Washington Cable, published in 1889, there is a tale about a large doll that had the bran stuffing removed from its body and replaced with quinine.  The doll was then dressed in an elegant costume. The lady “blockade runner” packed it in her trunk, and when border inspectors asked about it, she tearfully told them it was for a poor crippled girl. It was permitted to pass. The smuggled quinine was pressed into pills.  Malaria killed almost five thousand Union troops affected thousands more.  In the South, the number was far higher. The use of dolls to convey drugs was apparently well enough known to be noted and appear in print.

This story is referenced by “The History Detectives” who

investigated a composition Civil War doll named Nina. You can see the program online here:


A larger version of this doll lives in a bedroom of my 1768 farmhouse. I wonder what her big hollow head might have hidden. It is easily removed, and would hold much.

The deceit continues.  The Museum of the Revolution (Museo de las Revolucion) in the old part of Havana, Cuba, displays a plastic doll from the 1950s that it says was used for espionage.

And now, there is Cayla. Cayla is an interactive tech toy that you are supposed to connect to your smartphone.  She asks questions of her little owners, and records and sends the answers to Nuance. Nuance maintains a database used by law enforcement and military intelligence agencies to match voice-prints. Whatever your child tells Cayla is recorded and analyzed.  Cayla has a sibling called I-Que Intelligent Robot. Doll deceit has adapted to the times.

As a doll collector, my interest was piqued by the idea of using dolls as go-betweens. The best hiding places are those you no longer see because they have acquired the invisibility of the commonplace.. Dolls fall under that category, and will remain there as long as we have small children, and large ones who love them.


     Dolls are used as couriers in our new book, “The Convenient,” a medical mystery of the early 1700s, written with my co-author from Canada, Albert Marsolais.


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