Baby Nancy, the first “black” doll, awakened the toy industry

This month marks Barbie doll’s 60th birthday, with a lot of fuss. Target has launched a “girl power” commemorative collection. New coffee table books retrace the doll’s fashion sense, and Mattel is launching a new line of Birthday Barbies.

Barbie deserves her party, but that celebration has overshadowed another doll birthday that’s arguably more relevant to our cultural moment. Fifty years ago this month, Baby Nancy made her American Toy Fair debut. A 13 inch black baby doll, Nancy transformed what was racially acceptable in Toyland.

The revolutionary doll maker was a newcomer to the business: Shindana Toys. Nancy was her first doll, a product of the Los Angeles revival of the 1965 Watts Rebellion. In October, two months after the riots, Robert Hall and Louis Smith, two black civil rights activists working at Watts, founded Operation Bootstrap Inc. – a non-profit community development and vocational training center dedicated to the Black Power movement.

Bootstrap turned out to be a big hit, hailed as a model by both left and right. Three years after its founding, Smith and Hall were invited to meet with the white executives of Mattel, the world’s largest toy maker, then headquartered in Hawthorne. The makers of Barbie admired Bootstrap’s focus on economical self-help, and they offered to support a Bootstrap toy business. Mattel would provide capital, industry contacts and suppliers, and training by Mattel staff.

Shindana would make dozens more dolls over the next fifteen years, but it only took one to change the doll business forever.

(Hersh Rosner)

If the major American toy makers had woken up, it was the work of Baby Nancy.

The new company takes its name from the Swahili word meaning “competitor”. At Smith’s suggestion, Shindana would specialize in black dolls, with the goal of conquering a largely untapped market. Barbie Power would help fund a radical business: black toys designed, manufactured, and marketed by African-American toy makers.

But how do you do it right, how do you make an authentic doll representing African-American children? What would make Baby Nancy special is that, unlike commercial “colored” or “nigger” dolls, she would not be a white doll “dipped in chocolate”, as Smith put it, with features of the typical Caucasian face and hair. brown stained.

As a Shindana employee proudly explained, Baby Nancy “is not a white doll with black skin. It is not a black doll with negroid features that is unpleasant to look at. She is an authentically beautiful black doll.

Nancy’s hard vinyl body was brown, like other dolls destined for her niche market, but her nose, mouth, and facial structure were designed to be what some industry watchers had started to call “Ethnically correct”. And she was the first doll marketed as “black”.

Given the toy industry‘s history of racist imagery, a white manufacturer touting the “typical” ethnic or racial characteristics of their dolls would likely have drawn suspicion. But Shindana’s staff felt fully empowered to make such statements. With few exceptions, the company’s employees – at the front office, in research and design, and in the factory – were black. In some of its advertisements, the company highlighted the racial makeup of the workforce, suggesting that only black toy makers had the cultural know-how to make a truly black doll.

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Particularly noteworthy is how Shindana pioneered Nancy’s hair. The first Baby Nancy dolls had rooted black synthetic hair that might have come from Mattel suppliers: long, thin, and straight, they were styled in pigtails. By the end of 1969, the company represented what women were doing back then: wearing their “natural” hair to go against white beauty standards and show solidarity with the black liberation struggle. It meant a short, rude Afro.

This presented a significant challenge. The toy industry had never really attempted to breed natural, short African American hair before. Shindana imported a special oven from Italy and slipped synthetic doll hair under the heat to achieve a crimped and matted texture. The workers at the factory used a hair comb to inflate the naturalness and make it look and feel more realistic. Now consumers could pass up Pretty Pigtails, the original Nancy doll, for the more politically powerful Shorty Curls that employees called Natural Nancy.

The timing of Shindana and Baby Nancy couldn’t have been better. The end of the 1960s marked a turning point in the industry. All the big manufacturers, targeting a rising middle class of black Americans who wanted to be represented at the doll counter as well as the lunch counter, were introducing black dolls. As one white toy official at the time put it bluntly: “Anyone who uses dolls should be aware of black dolls. If he’s awake. Thanks to Shindana, more and more of these dolls would have natural hairstyles and “ethnically correct” facial features.

Shindana had been in business for 15 years, making Baby Nancy dolls and adding a diverse collection of other black (not black) lines. But Nancy was the pioneer. If the major American toy makers had woken up, it was the work of Baby Nancy.

Rob Goldberg teaches history at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, NY. He wrote a book on toy politics in the 1960s and 1970s.

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