What is it about a doll that often beckons a little girl in a way that is enticing as well as exciting? Terri Lee was the doll of choice for my sisters and me growing up in the 1950s. I know most people have never heard of her but she was a constant resident at our house.
The Terri Lee doll didn’t do anything and had no special skills but looked at the world with large painted eyes that never closed and had very distinctive eyelashes. Measuring 16 inches, she wore clothes like most children, but also outfits we young mortals could only dream about – fairy princess gowns, drum majorette costumes, fancy dresses and much, much more.
I inherited mine from my older sister who won a new one in a raffle at a local children’s shop that sold the dolls. My mother never wasted anything so the used doll was passed to me and I was thrilled.
Terri Lee came to me with the promise from my mom that she would be refurbished. There was actually a hospital for this family of dolls that would repaint her and recondition her to an almost new status.
We packed her up for a makeover and sent her to the hospital clear across the country to California. It tool several weeks but it was worth it when she arrived better than ever, sporting that trademark look with large, intense eyes that never wavered.
Each year, my sisters and I would add to our dolls’ collection of clothes (by this time, the third sister joined the Terri Lee frenzy) rather than getting a new doll for Christmas. My parents must have felt they were being invaded by these big-eyed dolls, but they went along with the total obsession. Bridal gowns, fancy outfits, flowery dresses, shorts and tops – you name it, she had it.
I wish my mom had kept them, but she passed them on to other young girls to enjoy. She couldn’t stand something not being used so items were donated as soon as they were dormant for a brief second or two. You had to be quick to survive her recycling efforts.
Several years ago when my granddaughters got into the American Doll frenzy, I remembered my fascination with Terri Lee. Having access to instant research on the Internet these days, I started a search and Googled for info. It didn’t take long. I was shocked and surprised to find out Terri Lee was patterned after a real child.
The doll was originally created in 1946 (the year I was born) by Violet Lee Gradwohl who named the doll after her daughter. Violet started the company in Lincoln, Neb., and moved it to Apple Valley, Calif. (the site of the hospital where my doll was refurbished), six years later, according to terrilee.com. Terri Lee was considered the best dressed toddler doll in the 1940s and 1950s. Her wardrobe was made up of more than 500 costumes and accessories at the height of her popularity, according to the site.
The more I thought about it the more I wanted to find one of the dolls – I needed it like a hole in the head. (I collected Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls for years so I knew I couldn’t get that hooked on Terri Lee.)
Again I headed to the Internet for assistance. The vintage dolls and clothes were quite expensive (hundreds of dollars) and not always in good shape. I made the plunge and opted for a new one. I spent about $150 with clothes included, far more than my mother would have approved.
I keep Terri Lee in the original box, which is an artwork itself. I share her with the granddaughters when they visit – they can look and touch but not undress or keep her out of the box for any length of time.
Recently, friends who knew about my fascination with the doll shared a magazine article from “Doll News” that explained how Terri Lee dolls and outfits benefited the American Heart Association from 1950 to 1956. The company created a series of costumes with a Valentine’s theme with a percentage of sales going to the Heart Fund Campaign.
My friend added after she gave me the article that she thought the doll actually looked like me (of course in younger years when I had dark brown hair). I am not sure I believe that, but I will use it as an excuse for a grown woman buying a replica of a doll from her childhood. Makes perfect sense!