This seems to be a straightforward term, but only as we know it in the modern useage. It is a children’s toy, specifically a female, or, in earlier times, it was a term of endearment.
But in the past there has been some confusion, especially in England in the late 17th/early 18th century, when at various times plays with human actors were banned so were replaced with puppets. This was especially so when some of the plays dealt with political subjects, and dared to criticise the government. It also makes possible social criticism, as the tradition of domestic violence in Punch and Judy shows, when women often got their own back on the do-called dominant men.
“In 1697 the Lord Mayor [of London] on Bartholomew’s Day, published an ordinance recorded in the ‘Postman’ “for the suppression of vicious practices in Bartholomew Fair, as obscene, lascivious, and scandalous plays, comedies, and farces, unlawful games and interludes, drunkenness, &C. strictly charging all constables and other officers to use their utmost dilligence in prosecuting the same.”
But there was no suppression of the puppet theatres. .. Again, on 18th June 1700 stage plays and interludes at the fair for that year were prohibited, and again in 1702. Puppet theatres continued to produce satire, political protests, often in the form of humour, but they got away with it, just as comedy programmes do today.
For some years the shows that toured the fairs were a mixture of live actors, clockwork, puppets and waxworks, and the term ‘doll’ or poppet or baby’ often appears, so it is often difficult to discover what the show was made of, and whether such terms were being used to cover the fact that live actors were being used, or whether the novelty of new technology was being used to attract punters to what was actually a show of live actors.
According to my tome on Bartholomew Fair, the term doll first appeared during the reign of William and Mary. They were called sometimes “poppets” but more usually “babies”. Bartholomew Babies were often mentioned beyond the fair, so they were held in high repute. They were elegantly dressed and packed in boxes.
“In Nabbes Comedy of “Tottenham Court” (1683) this phrase occurs “I have packed her up in’t, like a Bartholomew Baby in a box. I warrant you for hurting her. Poor Robin’s Almanack for 1695 says “It also tells farmers what manner of wife they shall choose; not one trickt up with ribbons and knots like a Bartholomew baby, for such a one will prove a holyday wife, all play and no work.”
Richardson guesses the derivation of the word to be from the Dutch dol, senseless; others derive it … from idol. He also quotes it as an ancient term of endearment, “pretty little Doll-pol” ie short for Dorothy Mary. But this still begs the question, why that particular name. Why not Susan or Jemimah?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is short for Dorothy, which again begs the question why that name in particular? Are Dorothies by nature stupid? It also refers to a small pet animal, especially the smallest pig in a litter, ie a runt. As a term of endearment for young females, it can be dated to a play of 1560, and is also cited in Shakespeare’s Henry IV pt II when a character is names Doll Tear-sheet
There is an encyclopedia of antiquities of 1825 that claims the term was in use in the middle ages, there was a doll-maker called Coroplastes, and his dolls were clothed like infants.
In Johnson’s ‘the Alchemist’ of 1612 he notes a doll-common being a common woman, or a prostitute.
From 1699 it is noted in a dictionary as a toy, ie the modern sense of the word. And from 1893 it is cited as a ventriloquist’s assistant. In 1788 Fanny Burney wrote in Evelina “As to the women, well, they are mere dolls” so the definition is well established by then, as women with empty heads and fond of fashion. And of course there is Damon Runyan’s brilliant musical, ‘Guys and Dolls’
A sense of its true origins, as a piece of carved wood, comes from a dictionary of 1699 when a doll’s head is described as part of the breech of a gun.
Thomas Edison spent considerable effort in trying to make a lifelike doll, a project which Gaby Hill, in her book ‘Edison’s Eve’, suggests had some sort of sinister or sexual overtones. But this long history of making human images, often in the shapes of females is more a patronising one.
The sense that women were brainless toys is one that is still very much extant, as the many reality tv shows provide ample evidence of. It’s no longer an image that can be laid at the feet of men alone. It is now an image that many women seem to accept, even to enjoy.
Or maybe that is just a new form of subversion. If women are seen to be stupid, then men ignore them, allowing them to get on with their lives, whatever they choose that to be. Maybe pretending to be stupid in the modern world is the most radical form of protest ever conceived.