The following is an excerpt from the latest episode of Slate’s Decoder Ring podcast. Listen to the full episode using the audio player below, or via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.
Paper dolls, a vital part of children’s lives and fashion culture for generations, have always been meant to be instructive: to teach young women and girls how to look and behave. But, from the start, they have been used in unexpected ways, by people they weren’t necessarily intended for.
The first mass-produced paper doll was published in London in 1810 and called The History of Little Fanny. It was a morality play told in verse, about Fanny, a vain, well-to-do girl who has a tantrum when she isn’t allowed to wear her favorite dress and then sneaks away from home. She’s robbed of her clothes, and thus of her status, and becomes a beggar—the set came with a beggar outfit. She makes her way back up the social ladder, one paper costume at a time, until she is reunited with her family. The lesson of the book was supposed to be about the dangers of caring too much about clothes, about how obedience is the only thing standing between a woman and total ruin. But playing with Fanny must have demonstrated the exact opposite of that. It showed the fun of fashion and storytelling, the fun of paper dolls. This tension—between what paper dolls are meant to teach and the creative, playful, norm-breaking lessons they can teach instead—followed paper dolls into the 20th century.
By the early 1900s, millions of sets of paper dolls were being sold each year by dozens of different publishers. You could buy them for a few cents at the five and dime, or cut them out of newspapers, comic books, magazines, and advertisements. There were paper dolls of—among other things—little girls, like the incredibly popular Betsy McCall, a perfect avatar of middle-class Eisenhower-era values; brand mascots like Minnie Mouse; and classic film stars like Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, and Carmen Miranda.
Because paper dolls were flat and printable, they were incredibly adaptable to all sorts of formats. There was even a vinyl record made for kids, where the sleeve featured paper dolls you could cut out and dress. One of the songs on the record, “The Paper Family,” by Anne Lloyd and Michael Stewart, has lyrics that describe how an American family ought to behave—as innocently and obediently as paper dolls.
The conformity represented by paper dolls was easy to subvert, because it was so easy to ignore. The virtue of simple toys is that it’s simple to use them any way you please. Paper dolls came with a lot of outfits—often eight to 10 per figure—and if you wanted more, you could just draw one yourself or cut them out of an old catalog. With all these choices, you could mix everything up, you could pair a gown with a bandana, you could pair a nursing outfit with dungarees. In this way, paper dolls were kind of like a Lego kit, a modular toy that was infinitely adaptable. You could even experiment with cross-dressing your doll. Anything you wanted to do, you could do. And this playfulness, this freedom, this is what many queer people loved about paper dolls.
In the world of paper doll publishing, the most famous gay player was Tom Tierney, who almost single-handedly kept paper dolls alive in the 1970s and ’80s—a low point for the popularity of the form. He created more than 400 paper doll books, including one of Pope John Paul II, and even some adult offerings, featuring drag queens, leather-clad bikers, and other atypical paper doll fare. But references to paper dolls show up all over gay culture.
The most fascinating connection we came across while researching this episode of Decoder Ring is also the most mysterious. San Francisco had a gay bar—or, at least, a proto-gay bar—called the Paper Doll, sometimes known as the Paper Doll Club, which was in operation by 1945, perhaps even earlier than that, which was incredibly early for an openly gay space. We don’t know for sure where the name came from, but we have a theory, and it has to do with another paper doll with a queer connection: In the early 1940s, there was a hugely popular song called “Paper Doll,” written by Johnny S. Black and performed by the Mills Brothers. It’s almost totally forgotten now, but it sold more than 11 million copies in its day. (That’s about as many copies as the “Macarena,” the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.,” or Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.”)
The song peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart in 1943 into 1944, so it would have been everywhere around the time the Paper Doll was opening. It seems likely that the song, at least in part, inspired the name of the club—because it has some pretty obvious queer subtext. Besides the oddness of a group of men singing about wanting a paper doll, one line refers to “flirty, flirty guys, with their flirty eyes.”
More generally, the fragility of the paper doll makes them a ready metaphor for gay people in the 1950s and ’60s—and still for some people even today—whose existence was precarious, who were constantly in danger of being found out, losing their jobs and families, and having everything ripped away from them. But paper dolls also suggest something more hopeful—the possibility of transformation.
And that transformation means that they are also a potent symbol for code-switching, of how changing outfits can change how you are perceived and act in different groups and situations. Out in the real world, you might wear the clothes of a lawyer or a sailor, but then when you’re around other gay people, say at the Paper Doll in San Francisco, you can shed that outfit and don something more authentically yourself.
To learn more about paper dolls and their hidden gay history, listen to Episode 5 of Decoder Ring, “The Paper Doll Club.”