better than

(From BITTERSWEET Volume V, No. 3, Spring 1978)

Written and illustrated by Gala Morrow

The little girl sat quietly before the fireplace as she always did each time the new catalog arrived. Thumbing slowly through the pages had become a silent ritual practiced each season when the mail brought the latest "want and wish book." As she turned the page of this brand new edition of the Sears & Roebuck, she saw all the things she'd dreamed of. There on these two pages were dolls and toys she'd always wanted--manufactured toys, not homemade like her own. She had once known a rich little girl from school who had a "store-bought" doll. It had a china head with little china hands and feet like the ones in this catalog. While firelight danced across the pages the girl dreamed of owning her own store-bought doll. Perhaps, if she was very, very good Santa would bring her one next christmas. She vowed that moment to be the best girl she could every day during the coming year.

Scanning the pages farther she saw metal cars and trucks and several porcelain animals of all different sizes. Every one looked beautiful and quite expensive. She scarcely dared to even dream of owning any of them. She wondered if even Santa could afford them. Sighing deeply, the girl laid the catalog on the floor beside her wishing for a china doll.

Finally the distant calling of her name awakened her from her daydreaming. She knew it must be the neighbor children beckoning her to join them in some game. As she jumped up she hurriedly grabbed her rag doll and gave a quick happy blow on her hickory whistle. Running out the door she hugged the dirty-faced doll and called to her friends.



Ozarkians of the early 1900's made many toys from the materials around the house such as rags or scraps of fabric. Little girls loved their big, floppy dolls made from the larger pieces of canvas or muslin and attired in dresses made from their own worn-out clothing. To make a simple doll like many girls used to have, cut out two pieces of white or unbleached fabric, one for front and one for the back, using the basic pattern. (Ill. 1) This pattern can be made any size desired. Then with right sides together, stitch around the edges, leaving a small opening at the top of the head. Turn the doll right side out and stuff. The stuffing, used in minimum amounts for the floppy dolls, was usually rags, old socks or cotton, but shredded foam is in common use now. After stuffing, close the opening by hand stitching. To complete the doll the face was embroidered or painted on with the features designed by the little "mother."


This basic pattern is cut from two large pieces of heavy material. Remember to leave an opening for turning and stuffing.

These dolls tagged along to almost any place their adventuresome owner wandered to the store with Mother, the fields with Father, or the river with Brother. The dolls often became very dirty but never fear--Mother was always ready to wash them with the other laundry. After several of these "baths" the dolls' painted faces faded or their embroidered features pulled loose. Then Mother would re-do the stitching or painting, making the doll seem like new.



Another material used to make dolls was socks. But the socks used weren't new--they had to be worn first. No one could afford to waste a new sock, so often the heels were worn thin and the toes were all but gone. Yet these socks made fine dolls for a small child in need of a plaything. The foot of the sock became the head and body, and the top became the legs. To make these dolls, first lay the sock flat and cut the top of the sock along the folded sides to within three inches of the heel. (Ill. 2) Then open and turn the sock inside out so that the raw edges are together and stitch along the feet and up the legs with right sides together. (Ill. 3) Remember to leave a place to turn the doll right side out (usually at the crotch). Stuff the doll with cotton, rags or shredded foam and then hand sew the opening closed. Since these were just simple dolls made hurriedly and with poor materials they rarely even had arms. The head was separated from the body by tying a string tightly around the neck. The bright and shiny eyes were usually buttons and the mouths were red embroidery. Colorful yarn hair framing the faces of these dolls was often rolled into a bun or tied into pigtails. Scraps of old clothing sewn into doll clothes made up the wardrobe. Since the dresses either had no sleeves or they simply hung loosely at the sides, they had to be tight enough to stay on by themselves.


Lay the sock flat and cut along the edges to form the legs. These dolls have no arms and only a string to distinguish the head from the body.


After cutting, turn the sock sideways and sew the legs. Stitch across the bottom and up the sides, leaving the crotch open for turning.



One of the essentials of the early Ozark household was corn, a staple ingredient in many recipes as well as the major feed for farm livestock. The times of picking and shucking the corn were used as Justifications for work parties. Games and singing accompanied the work done at these neighborhood gatherings.

Corn was used in numerous ways but perhaps the most interesting was in the making of toys from the plant. The Indian were the first to employ corn as a plaything. Centuries ago these natives were wrapping straw or husk blankets around corncobs for their children to play with. The Indians didn't paint faces on dolls because they believed that if the face resembled a living person, that person would die, causing his spirit to enter the doll. Though they didn't put faces on their dolls, they did sometimes use dried silks for hair.



Later the white settlers also made simple corncob dolls from ears of dried corn. After shelling off the kernels and making the ends even, Mother could fashionthe cob into a doll. Being only plain dolls made quickly to amuse a small child, they had no arms or legs and only colored marks symbolizing a face. The dressed dolls wore clothing made of paper or scraps of fabric. To make a pilgrim costume cut a rectangular piece of paper approximately one inch shorter than the cob and slightly wider than its circumference. Cut an old-fashioned bonnet and apron from a contrasting color. (Ill. 4) Wrap the paper clothing around the doll and glue to the cob. Despite the old Indian legend, the Ozark settlers used dots of paint to indicate the eyes and mouth.


This pattern for a pilgrim costume can be enlarged to fit any size cob doll.

If materials were available, these homely dolls could be made more elaborate. Unneeded scraps of fabric replaced the paper clothing and extra yarn was used for hair. The ordinarily plain dresses acquired overskirts of gathered fabric with ribbons and bows at the waist. Pieces of felt, fabric and beads were the facial features and gathered hats topped off the dolls.



The corn husk dolls took longer to make than the cob dolls because the husks had to be softened in water first. When they became flexible enough to work with, the husks were fashioned into dolls resembling Indians or Pilgrims. To make a doll soak husks overnight. Gather five or six husks together and trim the ends. Lay the husks on top of one another with the curved ends lying the same direction. The curved ends are those that had been attached to the cob. Place two or more husks with the curve in the opposite direction. Tie close to the top edge with twine. To form the head, bend the entire length of the two groups of husks down over the twine in opposite directions. The bend must be made immediately above the twine. (Ill. 5) This forms a rounded head with a thin hole at the top. Tie a strip of folded husk around all the husks about 1" from the top to designate the neck.


The husks must be bent immediately above the string to form the curved part of the head.

For the arms use one folded shuck (about 4 or 5 inches long or the proportion of an arm). Insert it through the shucks of the doll body, allowing it to extend equally on both sides. Tie smaller pieces of husk about 1/2 inch from the end of each arm to designate hands. Then tie another folded husk below the arms for the waist, tying it closer to the arms for the female and further away for the male.


The doll is tied with strips of husk in four places. The female doll's waist is higher than the male doll's.

The next steps determine whether the doll is male or female. For the girls, trim the ends of the husks even at the bottom for the skirt. To make an apron for the doll trim the top front husk about one inch from the bottom. A kerchief can be made from a long, narrow piece of husk tied around the head. For the boys, split the husks below the waist into two sections for the legs. Tie a folded husk at the hips and others 1/2 inch from the bottom of each leg. Finally trim the feet and bend at the ankle joints.


The male doll's legs are tied in three places. These ties designate the hips, ankles and feet. The feet must be pinned into shape until the husks are dry.

Tie loosely or pin the arms and feet into position and allow the dolls to dry for at least two days for them to hold their shapes. Normally the husks are stiff enough when dry to support themselves.



Even the dried corn stalks were employed in making toys, the most common item being a horse. To make the noble steed cut one large sized stalk approximately eight inches long and five smaller pieces, three and one-half inches long.

These smaller lengths are for the four legs and neck. Cut a two inch section off the larger piece for the head and use the rest for the body. Next cut two small holes the size of the legs near both ends of the body. Then insert the legs into the holes. Cut another hole in the end of the body and bottom of the head piece and join the head to the body with the remaining small stalk.


The smaller stalks are placed in holes cut into the body. The arrows show the position of the legs, neck and head.

The ears are small ovals cut from the stalk and placed in slits near the top of the head. Dried silks or small strips of stalk can be used for the mane and tail. Build a tall corral from extra stalks to enclose the mighty stallion. Make this by stacking sections of split stalks in the manner of a rail fence.



In the spring of each year children enjoyed blowing on the whistles their fathers made from hickory branches. To make the whistle, choose a twig having about a three-fourths inch diameter and four to six inches in length.


After cutting a small notch, twist the bark and slide it off. Then cut the notch deeper and make a few smaller cuts. Replace the bark and the whistle is ready for blowing.

The whistles have to be made in the spring when the sap is rising so that the bark slips off easily. Cut the twig from the tree diagonally on both ends. (Ill. 9) To make the slit that forms the whistle hole, cut a V shaped hole through the bark and into the wood about one inch from one end. Then carve a ring around the middle of the twig just deep enough to cut through the bark. Twist the bark off carefully so that it doesn't break. Carve the V shaped hole deeper into a half moon shape and also make a shallow horizontal cut from the slit to the end of the twig. Finally replace the bark and the whistle is complete. After drying, the bark usually can't be removed. Despite Mother's disapproval of these cheerful little toys, children blew them constantly indoors and out.



Farm children often rode gallant horses alone through the fields. However, their mothers never worried about them being hurt--the horses were only sticks. The steed carried his rider wherever the child wished to go. Normally the horses were long, forked branches from nearby trees. A bridle to restrain the restless stallion was available rope or bailing twine. In later years, heads were made from cloth or a sock stuffed and tied onto the top of the stick and even from carved wood to make the toy more closely resemble a horse.



Raiding Mother's sewing box often yielded empty wooden spools from which numerous toys were made. A tractor was one easily made spool toy. These tractors rolled swiftly across the floor, yet didn't need batteries or electricity--only a rubber band. To make a spool tractor cut notches around the rims of the spool to represent lugs, and insert a rubber band the length of the spool through the hole. Secure the band at one end by sticking a short section of a match stick through the loop. For the other end, first carve a piece of hard soap slightly smaller than the spool and about 1/4 inch thick. This serves as a lubricant when the spool turns. Cut a small hole in the center and insert the rubber band through this hole. Secure the band with a match stick that extends far enough from the spool to wind up and then act as a drag to guide the tractor.


The rubber band holds the sticks and soap in place. The length of the band determines the speed of the tractor--the smaller the band, the faster the tractor.

These tractors are unable to plow, but they can race quite well--however, they have a problem in maintaining a straight course. The speed of the toy depends upon the size of the rubber band in use and how tightly it is wound.



An out-dated catalog or magazine was a treasury to a small child with nothing to do. The children cut paper dolls from the pages and dressed them in stylish clothes pictured in the book. They found an infinite number of wardrobes in the catalog by turning only a few pages. Often the child would pick a particularly handsome man or attractive woman and cut a heavier backing for that doll. Even if the clothes didn't quite fit, the doll still looked stunning dressed in the latest fashions of Sears and Roebuck. Little girls cut accessories, furniture, buildings and animals from the magazines and established towns on the floor or table top. Children amused by these catalog paper dolls and a pair of scissors stayed out of Mother's way for several hours.




The kittens are seldom excited about being dressed up, so children must be careful to stay away from sharp claws and teeth.

Animals were some of the best companions of farm children providing enjoyment for the entire family. Dogs accompanied children wherever they went and cats curled on warm laps at home. But the most fun of owning a cat was playing house with it. Most doll clothes were just the right size for kittens and smaller cats. These "babies" were much more fun than ordinary dolls--they were alive and moving, even if it was usually far away from the children. It was very amusing to see a furry kitten attired in a dress and bonnet. If the cat was cooperative enough the children would dress it in pants or boots. Since usually the kittens weren't overly enthusiastic about wearing these confining clothes, the children had a difficult time dressing them. Keeping the cats under control was the biggest problem faced by the "mother," for it was very upsetting when her "baby" repeatedly jumped out of its stroller.

As the afternoon wore on, the little girl tired of the play and returned to the house. Passing through the kitchen she took a cookie from the safe and went into the front room. She offered a bite to her doll who politely refused. As she sat down before the fireplace, she saw the forgotten catalog still lying open to the double page of toys. Laying her doll aside, the girl looked once again through all the toys, her eyes finally coming to rest on the doll with the china head. Somehow, after playing with all her own toys, these didn't seem so wonderful.

She picked up her rag doll once again and brushed the yarn hair from its eyes. There were blades of grass in her clothes and her face was dirtier than ever. Quietly she closed the catalog and gave her "best friend" a tight squeeze and the biggest kiss she had.


Our gratitude is extended to the following persons for without their knowledge this story could not have been written: Lois Roperr Beard, Ella Dunn, Ernle Hough,, Corabelle Palmer, Mary Plunkett, Bethel Shipman.

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