Don’t let the sweet smiles of your favorite tea party guests fade with age—or misguided doll storage techniques. After all, dolls have fragile skin and outfits that can be spoiled by the wrong containers.
“Plastic and twist ties can cause harm and degrade dolls,” said Bradley Justice, owner of The Swell Doll Shop in North Carolina and a contributor to Antique Doll Collector Magazine. “We’re merely custodians of these objects for the next generation.”
Read on for expert doll storage tips to help preserve your memories, whether of your first “date” as Barbie, or of a surefooted three-year-old G.I. Joe. Old or new, there are special ways to care for toys that can help them last.
Doll Storage Secrets
Many of us would like to take good care of any toys we’ve saved, especially if we’ve spent hours living glamorous alternate lives playing with them, or watching our kids do the same, maybe with an American Girl or Our Generation cutie.
But some collectors take vintage doll storage even more seriously. After all, a mint condition Barbie from 1959, for example, can go for $25,000, according to the online marketplace Invaluable. There is a business side to all of this fun. And these are the folks who can give great doll storage advice.
Justice keeps his own beloved doll collection on display away from direct sunshine, because like with humans, light ages dolls. He also turns off artificial bulbs when he’s not in the room. And his dolls are behind glass to prevent dust.
At the most extreme, museums recommend storing antiques at 71 degrees Fahrenheit and 42% humidity, according to Jim Engelage, acting chairman of the education committee of the Antique Toy Collectors of America.
“Absent that, the temperature and humidity should, as a minimum, be held at a constant level,” said Engelage. “Also, halogen lighting should be avoided completely because of the intense heat that is generated inside lighted cabinets. We recommended LED lighting and a clear window film to block UV sunlight.”
Otherwise, if you expose your dolls to wide swings in temperature and humidity while in storage, their colors could fade and they could get moldy or crack.
If you want to keep your dolls where they can be admired, follow the best practices above.
But if you’d prefer to keep them on a closet shelf, consider wrapping your dolls and placing them in acid-free boxes in a temperature-controlled room.
Another safe, more environmentally friendly material for wrapping dolls, is unbleached cotton muslin cloth. The cloth protects the dolls while in storage, and you can wash it if it gets dusty, unlike tissue paper.
Wrap the boxes to keep out dust, and store doll boxes upright to prevent them from being crushed if stuck at the bottom of a pile.
Many vintage dolls are made of plastics and vinyl. From the 1950s, they will degrade in a way that will emit a vomit-like smell or have a stickiness to the vinyl, says Justice. Their elasticity slowly begins to seep out over time.
“They have an inherent problem,” Justice said. “Once the plastic is made, it starts degrading.”
Antique Doll Storage and Preservation Tips
Pro tip: leave your antique dolls alone. They’d like that a lot.Antique dolls made before 1930 are different from modern-era dolls. They are made from wood, cloth, kid leather, glazed porcelain, and celluloid. And they can break very easily.
Many of the same doll storage materials and tips from above apply to older dolls, with some extra attention.
The main “no-no” on long-term antique porcelain doll preservation is improperly handling the eye mechanism used to open and close the doll’s eyelids.
“There’s a lead weight in there that performs the opening and closing,” Justice said. “It applies pressure to the doll’s head and can break.”
He advises to store these dolls face down, and once again, use acid-free tissue paper and make a cushion of that material. Some people use bubble wrap. If you’re moving and it is short term, that’s fine, but long term, Justice cautions to go with acid-free tissue paper.
You can over-clean, over-press and overstress cleaning your collectible dolls, and end up doing more harm than good.
In one instance, Justice attempted to clean an antique doll’s printed silk chiffon, which was more than 100 years old. Justice carefully tried to handle it in a bathtub instead of using canned air, which would have disintegrated it. The chiffon had a metal buckle shaped like a butterfly. He gently ran some water on it, and carefully used a little bit of cleaning product.
The water turned chocolate brown, so Justice took the stopper out of the tub so it could drain. All that remained was the metal buckle shaped like a butterfly.
“You’ve got to know when to say ‘no,’” he said.
If he had a second chance Justice would try to preserve it in its original state, he said.For cleaning, use a paintbrush or a blushing brush to take surface material off the dolls. For antique doll hair, secure it with a tool or a fine mesh fabric and blow it using canned air.
With doll clothes, you may be dealing with 200-year-old silk. Keeping the original fabric intact and preserved is the main strategy.
“You sneeze and it blows away,” Justice jokes.
In some cases, Justice knows collectors that had a garment duplicated to a more modern fabric resembling the original so it could remain on display.
Many antique dolls from the turn of the last century are made of mostly kid leather and filled with cork grounds and sawdust. They will leak. Justice says it’s acceptable to some collectors to fill those holes with splits of glue and then put tape over them. He also recommends seeking a professional to have those dolls conserved.
If you want to do a small, quick paint touch up, beware that old paint can flake. Take it to a professional, says Justice.
Use appropriately recommended cleaner or solvent for your antique or vintage doll. Never use bleach. If the surface of the doll is painted, never use Magic Eraser. It will take the paint off with the dirt, Justice says.
“Start as lightly as possible,” he says. “A little bit of water and a shop cloth will do miracles.”
Sometimes you have to accept damage, flaws or soiling. It’s part of that doll’s history.
“Assess the durability of what you’re doing and proceed with caution,” reminds Justice.
Be sure to read our other blog post on storage tips for unique and vintage collectibles.