A Woman to Know: Beatrice Alexander

I didn't want to make ordinary dolls with unmeaning, empty smiles on their painted lips and a squeaky way of saying 'mama' after you pinched. — Beatrice Alexander

(image via Wikimedia)

You probably know her as "Madame Alexander," the woman behind those famously big-eyed dolls.

Bur before she was "Madame," though, Beatrice Alexander was a poor girl living on New York's Lower East Side. Her immigrant parents often struggled to make ends meet, so Beatrice helped her stepfather at his first-ever business endeavor: a "doll hospital" for wealthy girls' porcelain playthings. Beatrice later said the experience at the hospital taught her two things: how much people would pay to repair childhood treasures, and how much money separated the rich from the poor.

In 1923, Beatrice founded the Alexander Doll Company, inspired by her stepfather's work. She and her sisters first started making dolls in their parents' kitchen, creating cheaper figures that families could purchase during economic crisis. Beatrice took out a loan on her own, with no assistance from her husband or stepfather. When the kindly banker made a comment about how he didn't expect her to ever pay it back, Beatrice took the remark as a challenge. "I wanted to teach him a lesson," she said. "You need to believe in people's dreams, especially women's." The wide-eyed dolls became an overnight success.

Even during the Great Depression, the Alexander Doll Company thrived. Beatrice created pink-cheeked dolls inspired by movies (The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind among others) and current events (Princess Elizabeth and Margaret dolls sold out instantly). "Dolls should contribute to a child's understanding of people, other times and other places," she said. "Dolls should develop an appreciation of art and literature in a child."

Even today, 80-plus years after that first loan, Madame Alexander dolls remain on store shelves. Rare classics sell for thousands of dollars, and museums around the world exhibit Beatrice's original creations.

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