“Dolls are not a luxury. They are as necessary to a child’s life as a loaf of bread.” -Madame Beatrice Alexander
From Simple Beginnings
Beatrice Alexander (originally named Bertha Alexander) was born to Hannah Pepper March 9, 1895. Hannah was of Austrian heritage, but lived in Russia prior to fleeing to the United States to escape the dangerous and deadly anti-Jewish violence known as Pogroms. Conflicting stories make it hard to tell if Beatrice was conceived before Hannah left for United States or shortly after she arrived, but nevertheless, her biological father was not in the picture for long. Luckily for Hannah, love was in the cards, as she quickly met and fell in love with fellow immigrant Maurice Alexander, the step-father Beatrice loved deeply who ultimately inspired her to become the doll maven she eventually became.
The child of two immigrants, Beatrice called Brooklyn home. In an area mostly occupied by newly immigrated people, she would have grown up surrounded by a variety of cultures, languages and traditions. Back in the day, New York’s Lower East Side was a popular place for Eastern Europeans, specifically of Jewish descent, to begin living out their American dream.
Crowded and chaotic, it is said that the Lower East Side was one of the largest concentrations of Jewish life in over 2000 years, as it was a safe haven for those who were facing prosecution in their native countries. Growing up in a lower class neighborhood, seeing how entire families, not just the male heads of households worked to better their livelihoods, helped build Beatrice’s character and passion for working hard to achieve your dreams.
Watch and Learn
Beatrice’s introduction to the world of dolls came through her step father, Maurice Alexander. Before arriving in the United States, he had worked as an apprentice in German doll companies. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, bisque, a type of porcelain, was one of the more common materials used for dolls. With a high level of craftsmanship, German bisque dolls were known to have a lot of character. That being said, they were more delicate than dolls of today, so they broke easily.
In 1895, Maurice opened what would become the United State’s first doll hospital below Beatrice’s childhood home in Brooklyn, New York- the Alexander Doll Hospital. The doll repair shop both sold and repaired dolls imported from Europe and eventually gained enough popularity among the residents of the city that he had a steady stream of customers from his poor lower class neighbors to the rich upper class from neighboring boroughs. It was this upbringing, being around a doll shop, seeing her father and those around him work to bring the beauty back to something broken and seeing it be something that crossed class lines, that laid the groundwork for Beatrice to become one of America’s first successful female entrepreneurs.
Creating A Future
1914 brought hard times on The Alexander Doll Hospital with the outbreak of World War I. German dolls, which made up a lot of the doll hospitals stock, were no longer available, due to Allied embargoes of German goods. This lead to the shelves slowly becoming emptier and emptier in the family shop. With no dolls to sell and no way to get the special tools and materials needed to repair these European bisque dolls, times were tough for the Alexander family and their family business.
19 year old Beatrice, who was by this time married to Philip Behrman, refused to admit defeat. Faced with the empty shelves of the Alexander Doll Hospital, she recruited her three sisters in a plan to save the family business. Together, the Alexander sisters used muslin and excelsior to create soft fabric, unbreakable dolls with hand-painted eyes based on the Red Cross Nurses who were supporting the troops. The Red Cross Nurse doll was a hit with customers. It was in creating these early dolls that Beatrice found her calling.
A Legendary Company Is Born
In 1923, with the support of her husband Philip Behrman, Beatrice Alexander took out a loan for $1,600.00 and formed the Alexander Doll Company. After discovering a passion for creating dolls during the production of her and her sisters Red Cross Nurses and having a precious daughter of her own in 1915 with Philip, Beatrice continued her foray into the doll world with her new company. Following the Red Cross Nurse would be a realistic baby doll and a line based on Alice in Wonderland, the first of many dolls inspired by literary works.. “There was a need for the American child to have dolls and we filled that need,” she said later in life.
With early dolls from the Alexander Doll Company being made in the apartment above the Alexander Doll Hospital, Beatrice has said that these simple beginnings were what trained her to become an executive. After selling and producing enough dolls to break even, she eventually earned enough to move to her own studio space. Beatrice herself said she was no seamstress. “I just created the dolls and fortunately had people who could make my dreams”. Those people were often neighborhood men and women, fellow immigrants, in the Lower East Side. While the early years were not without struggles, including dealing with an unexpected factory flood and navigating the United States Great Depression, by the 1930’s, Beatrice Alexander, now known as Madame Alexander to many, had hit her stride.
Changing The Game
Always wanting to make an unbreakable doll, Madame Alexander never stopped looking for a material that was up to her standards. In the 1930’s, after becoming a master at the cloth doll, Madame Alexander began using a material composed of sawdust, resin and paper mache known as Composition. Not indestructible, in the 1940’s, Madame Alexander worked with Dupont Chemical to create what collectors refer to now as Hard Plastic. The dolls produced between the 1930’s through the 1950’s are still some of the most highly sought after dolls produced by this iconic doll company.
Besides introducing new materials to make dolls less fragile than the popular bisque dolls of the past, Madame Alexander also was the first to incorporate sleep eyes and realistic eyelashes to her expertly hand painted dolls. Her experiments with new material and fabric helped change not only the dolls coming out of her company, but the industry itself. Her impeccable attention to detail is still levels above what we see in the doll world today.
“I didn’t want to make just ordinary dolls with unmeaning, empty smiles on their painted lips and a squeaky way of saying ‘mama’ after you pinched,” she said. “I wanted to do dolls with souls. You have no idea how I labored over noses and mouths so that they would look real and individual.”
In Their Likeness
Madame Alexander had the keen ability to predict what consumers would want. Already firmly invested in creating dolls based on literary works, Beatrice applied for and won the rights to produce 16” dolls based on RKO’s 1933 Little Women, starring Katherine Hepburn. In 1936, Madame Alexander picked up the rights to produce dolls based on MGM’s now classic film, Gone with the Wind. Beatrice had read the book and knew it was something special. Their Scarlett O’Hara doll, produced prior to casting the iconic role, looks remarkably like Vivian Leigh, who was cast two years later to play the iconic role of Scarlett. The company also produced dolls for influential animated films, like Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Taking inspiration from the headlines, she would release another iconic line in 1935– the Dionne Quintuplets and the gynecologist who delivered them. They were a huge hit and sold in various sizes and sets. Then again, in 1953, Beatrice created an entire one off line of 36 dolls to honor the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II for department store Abraham and Strauss. This set is currently on display at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. The examples above are just a few of the real life people who were immortalized in doll form thanks to Beatrice Alexander and her intuition.
The End of an Era
In 1988, then in her early 90’s, Madame Beatrice Alexander retired from the doll game and sold the company. Though she’d ceded day to day operations to her son-in-law and grandson in the 70’s and was spending more time away, she never truly left the company. At its peak, The Alexander Doll company employed 1,500 Americans and by the mid 1980’s was clocking in with annual sales topping $20 million. Not too bad for a company started by the Jewish daughter of immigrants with a loan of just $1,600.00 in a time when succeeding on your own as a woman was tough. As her secretary is said, ““Madame Alexander was the original feminist. She was doing a man’s job when the world was not always accepting or approving of an independent woman.”
Madame Alexander died October 3rd, 1990, thankfully never seeing the brand suffer under various company takeovers from companies that never truly understood what made the brand special in the first place. Of course, having seen and experienced the struggles of growing up poor, the bottom line was important, but not as important as the special bond between a girl and her doll. As she Beatrice said, “Dolls should contribute to a child’s understanding of people, other times and other places.”
The Future of the Brand
Recently under new management, there seems to be a push to bring back the magic that was lost after Madame Beatrice Alexander sold the company. Unfortunately, this comes after the last company to manage the brand (Kahn Lucas, definitely a sore spot in the brand’s overall history) sold the iconic Harlem factory building and shut down the company museum, repair shop and party room. We can only hope that the new management team truly does believe in bringing back Madame Beatrice Alexanders original vision for the brand she created back in 1923.
What are your thoughts on this iconic brand and the legacy that Madame Beatrice Alexander left? Let us know in the comment area!