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The Woman Behind the Dolls

Madame Alexander launched her iconic doll company 90 years ago—decades before Barbie was born

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Madame Alexander with her early dolls. (Courtesy Madame Alexander)
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Alexander was a philanthropist, too; she gave generously to Planned Parenthood (she used to take her favorite factory workers to Margaret Sanger’s clinic for health care and birth control), the Jewish Theological Seminary, Brandeis University, the Einstein College of Medicine, the American Technion Society, Women’s American ORT, and the American Friends of Hebrew University. At the end of her life, she was a big donor to Republican politicians.

Alas, the company went through some very bad times after Alexander sold it in 1988, at age 93. (She died two years later.) Today it seems to be on stronger footing. It was bought in 2012 by Kahn Lucasmore Jews!—a fourth-generation, family-led company that began in 1889 as the Triumph Shirt Company. Kahn Lucas sells girls’ clothes and Dollie & Me products: sets of American-Girl-sized contemporary dolls with matching dresses for girls and dolls. (It’s funny how everyone at Madame Alexander today desperately avoids saying the words “American Girl”—they purse their lips and say “the competition”; if they accidentally start saying the competitor’s name, they stop themselves mid-syllable. It’s like theater people and Macbeth.)

Kahn-Lucas keeps winning Supplier of the Year awards from big-box retailers, so Madame Alexander’s issues getting merch into stores are, one hopes, over. Today Madame Alexander also does big business in licensed characters like Fancy Nancy, Angelina Ballerina, and Pinkalicious, as well as alarmingly real-looking newborn baby dolls with birth certificates and hospital wristbands for kids to “adopt” (and get notices for well-baby checkups for, so they can come in for upselling!). The company just introduced a line of washable cloth dolls, which are not only a throwback to the original cloth Red Cross doll but also the only kind of doll I as a parent would ever buy. (Grandma is of course welcome to buy fancy dolls with rooted hair and sleep eyes. As far as I’m concerned, everything in my house that is not mammalian needs to be machine washable.)

Madame Alexander Madame Alexander doll

Lest anyone worry that the company’s going too downmarket, collectors will still have plenty to fetishize: This year the company introduced a Madame Alexander Madame Alexander. Only 125 will be made, they sell for $1,500 each, and they are fabulous. They’re designed to look the way Madame did in 1923. Check out the fur stole, the rhinestone pin, the taffeta-lined, bugle-beaded georgette flapper dress, the red nails, the marcelled hair! My mother-in-law would plotz. This year, too, the company will reopen its iconic Doll Hospital, which closed at the end of last year when the company left its longtime headquarters in Harlem. (Ever the pioneer, Alexander had moved the factory there in the 1950s for the cheaper rent.)

While Alexander was the mother to zillions of dolls, her own daughter sometimes felt shunted aside. Mildred once said, “We had a lovely apartment across the street from the Bronx Park, but my mother was never home to enjoy it. … My mother was off on Sundays, but we didn’t really share any special routines on that day. She was exhausted from working six days a week, and she would relax by reading.” When you’re a visionary, work-life balance can prove elusive.

Knowing Alexander’s flaws, as well as her talents and generosity, makes her seem more real and resonant to me. Every working Jewish mother should know that she was one of us … inspiring and imperfect, the way we all are.

***

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salemst says:

Our daughter wrote a report on the Alexander dolls back in High School–around 2006-2007–and we toured the factory in New York City. Most impressive. We learned a lot about Madame then, and more with this superb piece.

A real high quality doll, and societal contribution

Thank you for this informative feature. The first paragraphs had me laughing – as our ‘behind glass doors’ display of dolls is in the (former) room of MY daughter Ellen. And, I too, have permitted my granddaughters to play – VERY briefly – with one or two of the dolls. I have also given 1 each to my granddaughters when they were 6. One more (so far) still to give. They are irresistible.

I’ve been collecting the dolls since 1979.My husband bought me my 1st doll on our honeymoon.

Wow, I had no idea – fascinating! I was a big doll-lover as a child and still am, but I never warmed to Madame Alexanders. Something about their eyes and prissy lips didn’t appeal to me, but I like that flapper doll a lot. I also had not-to-be-played with dolls but they were dolls dressed in garb of other nations. They were hung up around my room.

Never new she was Jewish. My daughters and I collected them. Great story.

Guest says:

My family has offered Madame Alexander dolls to our collectors at The Toy Shoppe since 1975. Knowing the history of the company and of Madame herself makes the dolls more interesting to me. We’re known for

Through The Toy Shoppe, my family has offered Alexander dolls to collectors since 1975. I was aware of the history of the company and that of Madame herself, which has always made the dolls more interesting to me. Although I personally enjoy the truly handmade pieces from other artists we represent, I have a strong appreciation for Alexander dolls because of my admiration of Beatrice Alexander. Her accomplishments are all the more amazing when considering the time period in which she lived. Honored as a Woman of Valor, she shared her success and gave generously to others. Happy 90th Anniversary, Madame Alexander!

Through The Toy Shoppe, my family has offered Alexander dolls to collectors since 1975. I was aware of the history of the company and that of Madame herself, which has always made the dolls more interesting to me. Although I personally enjoy the truly handmade pieces from other artists we represent, I have a strong appreciation for Alexander dolls because of my admiration of Beatrice Alexander. Her accomplishments are all the more amazing when considering the time period in which she lived. Honored as a Woman of Valor, she shared her success and gave generously to others. Happy 90th Anniversary, Madame Alexander!

Through The Toy Shoppe, my family has offered Alexander dolls to collectors since 1975. I was aware of the history of the company and that of Madame herself, which has always made the dolls more interesting to me. Although I personally enjoy the truly handmade pieces from other artists we represent, I have a strong appreciation for Alexander dolls because of my admiration of Beatrice Alexander. Her accomplishments are all the more amazing when considering the time period in which she lived. Honored as a Woman of Valor, she shared her success and gave generously to others. Happy 90th Anniversary, Madame Alexander!

Sophi Zimmerman says:

Had a Madame Alexander doll when I was a child. She was beautiful and I told her all my secrets.

Sophi Zimmerman says:

Had a Madame Alexander doll when I was a child. She was beautiful and I told her all my secrets.

This was a wonderful article, I learned so much. Can’t wait for your friend’s book to come out. I was one of those “collectors” but, I snuck and played with my dolls. My favorite aunty got them for me each year.

LisaMarli says:

She was the Woman of Valor for our Mariam reading during Passover one year. Considering most of us are costumers, Madame Alexander was a popular choice as we all love her dolls and several of us own them. They are lovely. And we were all inspired by her story.

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The Woman Behind the Dolls

Madame Alexander launched her iconic doll company 90 years ago—decades before Barbie was born

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