The kewpie doll

Her face hasn’t fared well, and I dare not try to remove the dent. Yet, her eyes are as arresting as ever.

This dainty little kewpie doll was found amoung my grandmother’s things. It’s age is unknown, unknowable.

When I started digging online into the history of this toy, the spelling was unexpected. I always thought they were cupie dolls, after Cupid, the old Roman god of love. In some places, that is the spelling. Wikipedia opts for kewpie.

In Australia, the kewpie doll was a staple of the local agricultural show – that annual event where the country came to town to connect, demonstrate and celebrate. Walking along sideshow ally, not far from the fairy floss machine, the dagwood dog van and brightly coloured clowns with wide open mouths, we would find a booth containing masses and masses of brightly dressed dolls on sticks.

My memory was so specific to this one location I had always assumed they were made only for this purpose. To my uncomfortable surprise, I now find they began overseas, are world-wide and not as unique as I first thought.

This sense of Australian ownership was carried from childhood through to teenage years when Ray Lawler’s play, The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, was required reading in high school. And then confirmed many years later by their inclusion in the Sydney Olympics closing ceremony, so much larger than life. The National Museum of Australia has saved one, much like we did, as ‘a souvenir of a passing show’.

In striking contrast, my little piece of history is wearing a very simple, hand-stitched dress; a semi-circle of glistening fabric that is hemmed with lace. There is a small lace collar. Ribbons on each shoulder fasten the dress in place. It looks delicate.

It is the hand stitching that I find so fascinating. The dress was either quickly made by an adult to satisfy an impatient child, or by the slow and imprecise hand of a child learning. Or someone who just had a lot to get through in one day!

When I was a young child, living on the farm, our pocket money would be recorded each week on a calendar. The total would be our spending money at the annual show. Perhaps it was an attempt to teach us to save. Unfortunately, the delight of spending at an event of heightened novelty drowned out any ideas of delaying such gratification.

Long gone are the brightly-coloured kewpie dolls that looked down upon my sister and I from the window pelmets in our bedroom. I have no idea how many the family may have purchased over the years. Although I do sense it was not many after the window display was established. There was no need for a replacement.

Further back, when Mum was a child, she only went to town twice a year. One trip was prior to Christmas, and the other for the agricultural show. I cannot think of anything in my life that would be similar to that experience.

Next steps

As I work my way through the myriad of objects I’ve accumulated over the years (p.s. not a hoarder!), the next step is to work out what to do next. Do I keep, recycle, reuse or pass it on to someone else?

Some things are too significant to throw out, but too delicate to just leave lying around. For items like the kewpie doll, the next step must recognise that these are touchstones of special moments.

But I can’t put her in a glass jar or in a frame by herself. That feels too isolating and too lonely.

This will take some pondering.

What are your thoughts?

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