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His Doll’s Voice: a Collage Sequel to “Bébé Marie Presents”

– Posted in: Aesthetics Collage & Montage Creativity Digital Art Digital Collage Inspiration Masters of Collage Surrealism Wood Engravings Wordless Wednesday


Last week, Art of RetroCollage published the post “Bébé Marie Presents…” , which recounted artist Joseph Cornell’s “rescue” of a Victorian doll that he named “Bébé Marie.” Cornell seemed to lend part of his soul to the doll by naming it and later encasing it in a glass-fronted box environment.

Many readers responded to this post.  Their reactions varied:  some expressed frank dismay at Cornell’s  act of physical “art appropriation” and the box construction he created as a result of it; others felt disturbed by the idea that a doll could have an existence and a soul of its own; and still others welcomed or accepted the notion of a doll imbued with a portion of its owner’s soul.

Interestingly, a comment posted by one reader brought to mind talking dolls. These toys have been made for over a century, with many different mechanisms: first mechanical, and then, more recently,  electrical.

By association, the comment also recalled  a step in the manufacture of talking dolls in the 19th century: in the 1880s, before the advent of electronic recording technology, the doll-making factories employed scores of young women to record, on hundreds of miniature wax phonographic cylinders each day, little snippets from nursery rhymes: “Little Bo-Peep,” “Jack and Jill,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and so forth.

The women would speak lines of poetry loudly into the horns of small recording lathes. In response to vibrations from the women’s voices, needles in the lathes would cut grooves in the surfaces of the cylinders.  The wax cylinders would then be mounted in inexpensive miniature gramophone mechanisms within the metal bodies of the dolls.  Turning a small crank in the back of a talking doll would cause its recording to be replayed: the doll’s voice, lent to it by a person by now long gone.

The phonographic doll, late 19th century. From Scientific American magazine.

Inevitably, the “voice” of every doll would carry the emotions of the young woman who recorded it, in the intonations of her speech. If she was weary from hours of labor, that would be conveyed by the recording; if she was sad or in pain, those feelings would be communicated as well.

And there they would stay…


Imagine if one of these dolls still existed, in working condition, able to play again the speech of a woman long gone. It might be the only evidence that this woman once lived–a weak and scratchy recording giving voice to the tedious factory routine of her days one hundred and thirty years ago. A spoken memorial to her soul.


Recording doll voices phonographically, late 19th century. From Scientific American magazine.

The talking doll returns full-circle to the question of soul in objects. Do nonliving objects have their own souls? If they do, reason, logic, and everyday experience cannot prove it. But remember that these rational processes form only a part of the way we perceive and interpret the world. Very often after we sense something, we act or react to it, decide or choose it, on the basis of intuition alone.  Even quite important matters are resolved by such subjective means: the Empire State Building in New York City is said to owe its appearance to the shape of a thick pencil once used in the lower grades in elementary school.

As very young children, during our ceaseless quest to understand how the world works, we use every intuition, hunch, or hint that we can, however far-fetched and nonsensical it may seem to others. Psychology has described these childhood inquiries as “magical thinking”: in one form of this, a child may witness two events, one happening after the other, and infer without proof  that the first event caused the second.  For example, when the child speaks harshly to an elderly relative who dies shortly afterward, the child may conclude that the harsh words caused the relative’s death.

In another form of magical thinking, one takes the resemblance of one object to another as evidence of some supernatural activity or divine intervention. According to some psychologists and skeptics, a miracle is a form of magical thinking–not because it happens, but because of the meaning we attach to it. In his detective story “The Blue Cross,” English novelist G.K. Chesterton says of miracles:

The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a note of interrogation [a question mark]. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.

Some adults do believe that miracles happen and that they are evidence of divine or supernatural action.  In the resemblance of their dolls to living people, children see evidence that the dolls are alive. The dolls walk, talk, open their eyes, cry, and wet themselves as babies do; how could they not be alive?

What makes the beliefs of children any less valid than those of their elders? Do we know more about the world as we get older, simply because we find out how the doll walks, talks, cries, or wets? Or are the world, and our existence in it,  mysteries that become more unfathomable the more facts we know? Two millennia ago, some Greek philosophers and scientists denied that cats and dogs had intelligence; today we know this is not so. Until recently, we thought that most of the matter in the universe had been accounted for; now we know that just the opposite is true.

Modern physics has in some cases found exceptions to the causal “laws” and logic that we claim to use, as rational adults navigating through our lives and the world.  In the near future, we may indeed prove that we are able to invest inanimate matter with our own emotions and thus transform it into something having a soul, if not life itself.

(All artwork, descriptions, & other text (except for quotations and cited research material) created & copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.)

40 Comments… add one

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40 comments… add one
The Info Mouse March 20, 2012, 3:50 pm

Very interesting! I always feel a little more educated after reading/looking at the pics in your posts.

Eric Edelman March 20, 2012, 7:53 pm

Thanks very much for your kind comment! And thanks for visiting.

Julie March 20, 2012, 7:32 pm

Happy WW!

Eric Edelman March 20, 2012, 7:39 pm

Thanks! Happy WW to you, too!

EdT. March 20, 2012, 7:46 pm

I love how the images tend to shimmer as I scroll the page.

Happy WW!


Eric Edelman March 20, 2012, 7:51 pm

Thanks–Happy WW to you as well! That shimmering is one of the neat things about the shading in wood engravings. It’s just another of the many reasons I love them so much.

Stacey at RealWorldMom (Linky) March 20, 2012, 8:07 pm

Amazing drawings!

Eric Edelman March 20, 2012, 8:20 pm

They are great engravings. I wish I could take credit for them, but they were done by a couple of 19th century artists, probably anonymously. Thanks for your comment and your visit!

Dave Keller March 20, 2012, 8:45 pm

The inventions of “yester-year” always amaze me. Just think how far we have come with technology.

Eric Edelman March 20, 2012, 9:41 pm

True, Dave. But what is almost as surprising, sometimes, is to see how much we could do in earlier times with relatively primitive technology. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and your visit!

Theresa March 20, 2012, 8:53 pm

Indeed, that would be very interesting to have one of those dolls to listen to now. Another great WW! Thanks for the linky!

Eric Edelman March 20, 2012, 9:37 pm

Yes it would, Theresa. Thanks very much for your visit and your kind comment!

Eat Bugs, w/Linky! March 20, 2012, 9:03 pm

love the doll!

Eric Edelman March 20, 2012, 9:35 pm

Glad you like it, Mitch. There were lots of amazing things among the toys of yesteryear.

Lisa @ My Thoughts w/linky March 20, 2012, 9:53 pm

Happy WW!

Eric Edelman March 21, 2012, 2:45 am

You too, Lisa! Thanks for stopping by!

Trisha G. March 20, 2012, 10:47 pm

These are so interesting, thanks for sharing!

Eric Edelman March 20, 2012, 10:57 pm

Thanks for stopping by to comment and link up!

Sukhmandir Kaur March 21, 2012, 12:35 am

WOw never everheardabout early talking dolls before, very cool share.

Eric Edelman March 21, 2012, 2:41 am

Thanks for your kind comment, Sukhmandir!

Cafe au lait March 21, 2012, 1:34 am

Very interesting post. Have a great WW!

My entry.

Eric Edelman March 21, 2012, 2:44 am

Thanks for stopping by and for your nice comment! Have a great WW.

Monica March 21, 2012, 6:18 am

I had never heard of these dolls before, pretty amazing for their time. Thanks for all the background information it was a very interesting read!

Monica, Older Mommy Still Yummy

Eric Edelman March 21, 2012, 1:45 pm

Thanks for visiting us and for your nice comment, Monica! I’m glad you found the post interesting.

Carol @ Always Thyme to Cook March 21, 2012, 7:59 am

Interesting post. I tried yesterday to comment but I kept getting an error. The mechanical talking doll is really cool. I had the ones that talked when you pulled the string, 🙂

Eric Edelman March 21, 2012, 1:44 pm

Thanks, Carol! (Sorry about your trouble in commenting; I’m still trouble-shooting it.) I’ve always found talking dolls fascinating, and learning how they worked has never diminished their interest for me.

Tweet Tweet {Linky!} March 21, 2012, 10:28 am

I was curious as to what I would find here this week. Very interesting indeed 🙂


Eric Edelman March 21, 2012, 1:41 pm

Thanks for stopping by and leaving your kind comment, Paula. I’m glad you found it interesting!

Erika Price {Linky} March 21, 2012, 12:44 pm

Fascinating, Eric. When I was small I remember my grandmother giving me what I thought back then was a horrible doll – I didn’t like dolls much at the time (I preferred teddy bears!) and this one was made of hard shiny black plastic with odd woolly hair, and it didn’t look a bit like any of my friend’s soft and squidgy blonde dolls. In later life I discovered that my grandmother’s own grandparents had been prominent campaigners for the abolition of slavery. Now, I look back and realise what a special gift that doll was – if only it could speak, I would so love to be able to hear my grandmother’s voice once more!

Eric Edelman March 21, 2012, 1:40 pm

What a touchingly poignant story, Erika! Thanks so much for sharing it. It’s always fascinated me to see the misunderstandings between older and younger generations: children often misunderstand the motives behind certain gifts they receive from their elders; yet just as often, misunderstanding by those adults devalues or fails to recognize the value put on things treasured by children. How often have I wished that my parents had saved some of my childhood toys! Not only have they had enduring personal value for me, but who can tell how many others of my generation would have enjoyed my sharing them? Thanks very much for your always perceptive comments.

Faythe @ GrammyMouseTails *linky* March 21, 2012, 5:53 pm

very thought provoking. I liken it as toys or what ever someone or a child thinks is magical or alive is using the imagination. and that is a powerful and needful experience as many important things have evolved from someones imagination.
I wonder if their is one of these dolls laying around in someones attic waiting to be found. the wax cylinder may be melted by now tho… I do recall seeing something on TV about this way of early recording.

Eric Edelman March 21, 2012, 6:09 pm

Thanks, Faythe. Yes, this entire subject is interesting in all its ramifications: for instance when does imagination leave off, and magical thinking begin? Is imagination a form of magical thinking that is balanced by and grounded in everyday reality? Fascinating questions to ponder.

As for the dolls, I fear you are right. Probably about the best approximation to the original would be to restore the remains of one, or build a replica. I’m sure time has been none too kind to those wax cylinders.

Sarah March 21, 2012, 9:23 pm

These are great. Thanks for linking up.

Eric Edelman March 22, 2012, 12:40 pm

Thanks for your visit and comment, Sarah.

jessica @peekababy March 22, 2012, 11:24 pm

So much better than barbie!

Eric Edelman March 23, 2012, 1:48 am

No comparison!

Leah H. March 25, 2012, 2:02 am

Interesting! Thank’s for sharing..

Visiting for Wordless Wednesday- hope you can stop by:)

Eric Edelman March 26, 2012, 1:41 am

Thanks, Leah! I’ll be visiting your site shortly.

Catch My Words March 27, 2012, 7:52 pm

Wonderful art as always.

Eric Edelman March 27, 2012, 9:56 pm

Glad you like it! (I’m sure Juan would be, too….) Happy WW…

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