The Lady in Furs
Object Analysis and Report for Anthropology of Museums
by Monica Fenton
This Inuit (Eskimo) doll, accessioned in 1937 (37-14-7), is one of seventeen objects from Greenland donated by Samuel C. Ingraham. The collection, consisting mostly of footwear, also includes a model kayak with a human figurine and miniature harpoon. The doll came from the town of Arsuk, and the model kayak hails from Ivigtut, although most lack specific provenience.
Just as the kayak and harpoon are small but highly detailed replicas of adult tools, the doll is an image of how a married Inuit woman of that time (late 19th to early 20th century) was expected to dress. These objects (typically labeled as toys) served a purpose beyond a simple plaything. They modeled how children were expected to conduct and dress themselves in adult life, and helped to teach useful skills.
The Museum’s collections database describes the doll as: “Representing a married woman (note blue hair ribbon). Stuffed cloth body, bone? head, ivory forearms. Wearing plaid silk shirt, sealskin trousers and boots—both embroidered with skin applique.” This textile terminology is incorrect. Embroidery is created by strings sewn through the fabric over and over again; the decorations on this doll’s clothing are appliqués, cut-out shapes sewn onto a base fabric.
A wide range of material was used in her construction. Her body is made of rough plain yellowish cloth, perhaps linen or cotton. Her blouse is blue, red, and yellow plaid, with large fibers, a coarse weave, and a dull lustre. The orange and peach fabric trim at the cuffs and bottom of the blouse appear to be silk, with a fine weave and distinctive sheen. Fur trim at the neck and ends of the sleeves is important; it would protect a real live woman from the cold seeping in at these openings. An elaborate collar of little glass trade beads—blue, white, clear, purple, black, and red—is sewn onto the blouse below the neck fur.
This doll’s clothing can readily be compared to a full-size suit of Inuit women’s clothing from Godhaven, Greenland (items #97-84-709 A-D), purchased by another collector and housed in the Museum. This woman’s suit is said to have been “made by order of the Governor of the Peary Relief Expedition” in 1892; it was originally housed in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (item #11180), and was later gifted to the Penn Museum. Even though these suits of women’s clothing are separated in time (and in measure), they are remarkably similar. The adult blouse is of calico rather than plaid European fabric, but it bears the same crisscross bead collar pattern—with nearly identical weave and colors of beads. It also includes fur cuffs and orange silk trim, just like the doll-sized version.
Similarly, the doll’s sealskin trousers, which still have patches of short fur attached, are a miniature version of the longer thicker fur found on the human-size garment. Both pieces of clothing have a vertical strip of skin applique designs on the front of each thigh. On the doll, long red and white strips border a central yellow piece adorned with tiny red, blue, and yellow skin rectangles arranged in geometric designs. The applique is sewn with thread, not sinew, and when possible the maker sewed underneath the upper layer of the skin in order to hide the stitches. Despite the differences in scale, the small individual pieces of skin that make up the patterns are about the same size. The same craft material was used for both the model trousers and the ‘real’ piece of clothing, suggesting that the person who made the doll did not think it should be an inferior or simpler version of reality just because it was smaller. In fact, the doll’s design has more colors and a more complicated pattern.
The doll’s knee-high boots, like the other garments, are a miniature version of the traditional boots (called kamik) that accompany the adult clothing. Their geometric skin strip design is similar to the trousers, but without the red and white borders.
The catalog card speculates that her head is made from bone, but the color, texture, and grain indicate carved wood. The cloth cap on her head anchors a hank of real human hair, wrapped with a blue ribbon, which, according to the card, indicates her marital status. Her hands are made of ivory, heavier than the fabric parts of the doll, and sewn into the arms of the cloth blouse.
The doll’s condition is good, with a bit of wear, suggesting that she was likely used or played with before being collected as an ethnographic artifact. Her arms are hanging on by literally a thread or two, which could have resulted either from rough handling or improper display. If the doll had been displayed upright without support for the arms, gravity may have slowly weakened the threads.
As I examined this doll for over two hours, I was deeply impressed with the creator’s careful attention to realism and detail. The references to actual adult clothing were so clear that even a non-Inuit non-expert like me could see them. Like the kayak and canoe models, this doll was not just a toy, but a tool for showing children the way things were actually done. Her aesthetics sharply contrast with female dolls in modern American culture, which project a completely unattainable ideal of body proportions that no healthy person could have, and luxury fashions that most people cannot afford. Instead, this doll projects a sturdy and healthy female body, dressed in surprisingly accurate and detailed proper Inuit clothing. Her choices of traditional fabrics and furs not only keep her warm, but they also display her access to trade connections and ability to choose select exotic goods for ornamentation.
NOTE: For more information about this Arctic doll and these clothes, see the related blog article— “Ladies in Fur, Traveling through Time“—by Margaret Bruchac.