The Big Story of the Wee Doll Maker

 

THE BIG STORY OF THE WEE DOLL MAKER

A Short History of the Woman behind Nancy Ann Storybook Dolls

Nancy Ann Abbott was born Rowena Haskins to parents Edna May & Archibald Haskins on February 22, 1901 in the idyllic setting of Lake County, California. Situated firmly in California’s “Wine Country”, Lake County is directly north of the San Francisco bay area and sits nestled against Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in California that is wholly within its borders. The farming community of Lake County produced Bartlett pears, beans, peaches, grapes and walnuts, among other crops. By the early part of the 20th century, the area was credited with producing some of the finest wines in the world.

From early childhood, Rowena enjoyed dressing and creating costumes for her dolls. She left Lake County to attend the College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland, California, before heading to Hollywood in the 1920s to pursue a career in acting.

When Rowena landed in Hollywood, she took on the stage name of “Nancy Phipps” and was able to secure bit parts as a dancer in silent films. Her blue eyes and red hair helped to set her apart, and eventually she managed to get a few leads in a couple of early Western films.

Rain, Rain, Go Away Nancy Ann Storybook Doll #170
“Rain, Rain, Go Away”, Nancy Ann Storybook Doll #170. Photo Credit: Jennifer Taylor Craig / Whispering City RVA

While her acting career produced some work, what really set the ball rolling for Nancy was the work she took on as a dress designer for other actresses within the Hollywood community. According to an interview that appeared in the New York Times, Nancy stated that it was around this time that a friend asked her to dress a doll that she wanted to give as a gift. Nancy agreed, and once completed, the doll was so well-received that word of mouth began to spread quickly. Soon, Nancy was getting so many requests that she was struggling to keep up with the work.

Nancy left Hollywood in 1935, changing her name to “Nancy Ann Abbott” in order to distance herself from her acting career. Relocating to San Francisco, she opened a book-lending shop in the day and used her apartment at night to create doll costumes, which she was now selling for a profit. Later that same year, she took on her first roll as manufacturer when she began a doll series called “Hush-a-Bye” babies. These small bisque dolls were three and a quarter inches tall; their bodies made in Japan and imported to San Francisco where Nancy Ann created costumes, dressed and styled them before selling them to an ever-growing customer base.

In 1936, Nancy Ann began producing five-inch Storybook dolls, the bodies of which continued to be made in Japan. She named her dolls after jingles, childhood nursery rhymes, fairy tales and other beloved children’s stories.

"To Market, To Market, To Buy a Fat Hen", Nancy Ann Storybook Doll #120. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor Craig / Whispering City RVA
“To Market, To Market, To Buy a Fat Hen”, Nancy Ann Storybook Doll #120. Photo credit: Jennifer Taylor Craig / Whispering City RVA

Forming a partnership with businessman Allan “Les” Rowland in February of 1937, the two incorporated as “Nancy Ann Dressed Dolls, Inc.”, with Nancy Ann overseeing manufacture and production, and Les handling finances and promotion. They purchased a 400 square-foot shop in San Francisco and hired four employees with the $125 that Nancy Ann was able to contribute to the start of this new and exciting enterprise.

Over the next few years, the company’s success continued to steadily grow. In 1938, Nancy Ann and Les added a pottery to their empire and moved the production of the doll bodies from Japan to Berkeley, California. They were now able to create and use their own molds for the dolls that they were producing.

Nancy Ann hired local artists to paint the doll’s features by hand so that each doll had their own unique personality. Costumes for the dolls in the series were changed frequently, sometimes due to changing fabric costs and availability, and other times simply because Nancy Ann enjoyed seeing her dolls in new costumes from one year to the next. Additionally, the dolls were now being shipped by United States postal service to excited little girls all over the nation who could not wait to receive the newest Nancy Ann doll in the mail.

Nancy Ann Storybook Dolls print ad, 1949
Nancy Ann Storybook Dolls print ad, Playthings, 1949

When World War II started, Nancy Ann and Les landed a $50,000 contract with the United States Navy to produce dishware for Navy hospitals at their potteries in Berkeley and Stockton, California. This association may have been a key factor in the US Navy’s decision that Nancy Ann dolls were good for the morale of US armed forces stationed far from home. The Navy sent Nancy Ann dolls by convoy to Hawaii, where soldiers and seamen were able to purchase the dolls in order to send them home to their mothers, girlfriends, wives and daughters.

By 1942, the company was grossing over one-million dollars in sales annually. In 1945, Nancy Ann and Les changed the name of their business to “Nancy Ann Story Book Dolls, Inc.”. At that time, the company had grown to be the most well-known doll manufacturer on the West Coast, producing an average of twelve-thousand dolls per year.

Nancy Ann remained at the helm of her company until her death on August 10, 1965. For her fantastic business sense, her art, her vision and her dedication to all things frilly, girly and sassy – for her legacy of wonderfully collectible dolls, Nancy Ann Abbott embodies the realization of the great American dream.

Thanks for reading!
– Jennifer
Whispering City RVA

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