Thursday, November 8, 2012

Veterans, Zouaves, and Dolls

     Since Veterans Day is approaching, this week seems appropriate for writing about another one of my favorite artifacts – a clothespin penny doll from the Civil War.  At first you might wonder what a small doll has to do with Civil War medicine or with veterans.  These clothespin dolls were often made by Civil War veterans, sometimes while the veterans were recuperating in the hospital.  The dolls were a source of income for them and, as the name implies, usually sold for a penny.  Many times the doll clothes were made from the veteran’s own uniform or a flag – which can give some hints as to the maker of the doll!
Here is the clothespin doll, dressed in a Zouave uniform. The shirt that appears tan in the photo was probably originally white. The red, white, and blue coloring of the clothes suggests that they may have been cut from an old flag. Also notice that one of the doll’s legs is shorter than the other. This may indicate that the doll’s maker was an amputee, and that he made the doll to resemble himself.

     Both the Union and Confederate sides had Zouave regiments, so this doll could have been made by a veteran from either side.  The Zouaves’ colorful uniforms, which were based on those of the French Army, varied somewhat from unit to unit.  They usually consisted of a short, open jacket, baggy trousers, and a wide sash.  The headgear was often a fez with a colored tassel.  Though rather exotic in appearance, this uniform allowed the wearer a greater freedom of movement than with a standard uniform, and was better suited for warm weather. 
This is an image of an unidentified Union soldier in Zouave uniform, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Notice the similarities to the clothespin doll!
Here’s a closer look at the doll’s painted face. The black hair is still clear, but the facial features have faded. You can still make out parts of the eyes and the tip of the nose though. You can also see that the fabric is starting to deteriorate. This is why the doll is kept inside a box – the less it is handled, the less stress is put on the already fragile fabric. 
     If you'd like an even closer look at this doll, it is currently on display at The Lyceum: Alexandria's History Museum, in Alexandria, Virginia.  I’m sure this doll’s maker had no idea his little creation would still be fascinating people over a hundred years later!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.


  1. Although making penny clothespin dolls may have been helpful to the recovery of a veteran in hospital, my heart breaks to think that they would have to make dolls to support themselves.
    That said I find the dolls a great way to teach us all about the people of the Civil War. At the Hampton Historical Society in Hampton N.H. we will be showing children how to make their own Civil War doll during one of our 375th town anniversary events. Many thanks for your post
    Karen Raynes

  2. Oh my goodness! How great it is to find your posting and webpage. I am a teacher at Thomas Alva Edison Middle School in South Central Los Angeles. We have just finished our second annual Civil War event -- two days of performance of "Red Badge of Courage" plus on our wonderful shady front lawn, Re-enactments featuring a medical tent, amputations, Civil War band and singers, dancers, math presentations (graphs, charts, computerized programs of canon ball projections), candle making, etc, etc. It was fabulous! Now I find this information. How wonderful for next year's event as we plan and entice the students to become involved with history. Thank you a hundred times over. Ellen

  3. It sounds like a wonderful event for your students! I'm glad you found some information here that helps!