Meet Saralee, a Doll for All Children

10, December 2016
Photo of Saralee doll in "TOYS of the '50s, '60s and '70s" exhibitThis Saralee doll is featured in the 1950s section of the TOYS exhibit, open now through January 22, 2017.

From my first walk through TOYS of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, a small baby doll—the only African American doll in the 1950s case—piqued my curiosity. I soon learned that without the support of some very influential people, it would never have been produced.

Little Saralee's story starts with Sara Lee Creech, a Caucasian businesswoman and social activist living in Belle Glade, Florida. After seeing two African American girls playing with white dolls, Creech became concerned because the children had no “anthropologically correct” dolls to represent them. As she said, “If you do it out of choice, it’s fine, but to have no choice, that’s wrong.” Creech may have been influenced by child psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, whose studies showed that in the segregated South of the 1930s and 1940s, children of color chose dolls of lighter complexions over those of darker complexions. This indicated that by preschool age, children of color had accepted society’s prejudices regarding skin color. In 1948, Creech set out to change that.

Black-and-white photo of singer Leontyne Price holding Saralee dollOpera singer Leontyne Price holding a Saralee doll, December 11, 1951. Photo by Carl Van Vechten. Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

First she designed a doll with a cloth body and vinyl arms, legs, and head. Then she approached sculptor Sheila Burlingame to make the mold for the doll’s head. Creech took her prototypes to novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who was impressed that a white woman would take on this project. Hurston must have mentioned this meeting to her friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, because Roosevelt wrote to the Ideal Toy Company that such a doll would be a lesson in equality for young children. Other fans of little Saralee included Dr. Ralph Bunche, Mary McLeod Bethune, and even the presidents of Howard and Morehead State universities.

Yet despite all of this support, production of the doll had not yet begun by 1951. Then chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Roosevelt again wrote to the Ideal Toy Company. This time she subtly asked, “Would it be of any help if I hosted a tea to announce the doll?” Not surprisingly, the toy manufacturer accepted Roosevelt’s invitation, and the resulting tea party was covered by such prominent magazines as TIME, Newsweek, LIFE, and Ebony.

Scan of Jet magazine article about Eleanor Roosevelt and Saralee dollDr. Ralph Bunche and Eleanor Roosevelt observe the Saralee doll in this clipping from the November 8, 1951, issue of JET magazine. Image courtesy of Vieilles Annonces, via Flickr.

The Saralee doll was on the market from 1951 to 1953, but it never became a commercial success. Sears carried it, but Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue refused to “for fear that it would attract too many black customers.” Design flaws may also have contributed to the disappointing sales. Over time, the vinyl became stiff and hard, and the dye faded and bled into the doll’s clothing. These flaws halted production of future models, which were to be of lighter and darker complexions. 

Not one to let a setback hold her down, Saralee creator Creech continued to work for human rights. She developed day-care centers for migrant farm workers in the 1950s and 1960s, and she testified before a White House conference on day care in 1965. She possessed the ability to address a need and organize a coalition of prominent people to help her ideas take root. In one special case, this collective effort produced a little doll that became the best friend of many children. As Creech said, she didn’t set out to make “an African American doll, but an American doll that happens to be black, a doll for all children.” Creech died in 2008 at age 91.

—Sandy Schneider, Docent Educator

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