Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Origins of the 1949 Merci Train Dolls

When WWII ended in May 1945, Europe was fiscally devastated. National economies had collapsed, most of Europe’s industrial infrastructure (particularly France and Germany’s) was destroyed, millions of citizens across the continent were homeless and starving, and fear began to resonate among the allied nations as the Soviet Union swiftly annexed the surrounding nation states it had won during the war. By 1947, the condition of the European economy had not recovered as quickly as the allied nations had anticipated, and in June of that year the United States began the development of the Marshall Plan (enacted in April 1948), a recovery program that directed monetary resources into rebuilding Europe’s industry and encouraging intercontinental trade. More importantly, the Marshall Plan was designed to thwart the growing appeal of Communism, which was gaining favor among the war-weary Europeans who desperately needed food provisions and reconstruction aid. 

As the Marshall Plan was under development by the US State Department, an American grassroots movement was underway spurred by syndicated journalist Drew Pearson. While the United States had distributed provisions across most of the European continent after WWII, Pearson (and other post-war critics) believed that the gesture lacked sincerity, that it was merely a means to serve American political interests rather than the interests of the European people. Pearson believed that humanitarian efforts needed to be heartfelt and come from the American people directly – this to improve American-Euro relations on a more personal level.[i]   As Dorothy Scheele explains in her article “The 1947 Friendship Food Train to Europe”,
Announcing his idea of sending food across the Atlantic in his broadcasts and columns on October 11, 1947, Pearson asked Americans to donate food from their homes, kitchens, gardens, and fields. His plea was fantastically successful. Immediately town [sic], cities, and states formed plans to collect food and send it to the Friendship Train….Although the train traveled through only eleven states, every state contributed by sending its boxcars or trains to meet the Friendship Train at a junction or by sending trucks to the train….Many communities not on the original route insisted on giving, thereby causing delays all along the journey. In fact, the enormity of the donations plus the mountainous terrain in the West caused the train to divide, and at its end, there were three trains totally [sic] 270 boxcars. The estimated worth [of the cargo] was forty million dollars.”[ii]
In deep appreciation for the American people’s benevolence, more than six million European families sent personal gifts of gratitude (i.e. handmade items and heirlooms) to the United States.[iii] European officials and organizations also participated in the spirit of reciprocity by sending over valuable pieces of art, historical documents, and even a couture wedding gown for a lucky American bride-to-be. Fifty-two thousand (52,000) crates of “thank you” (or merci) gifts were packed into forty-nine restored rail cars which were then loaded onto the ship Magellan at port Le Havre, France.[iv] On February 2, 1949, the Magellan arrived in New York Harbor ready to unload the rail cars of the Merci Train and set it in motion, with all it's gifts of appreciation, across the United States. Among the treasures stored in the Magellan's cargo hold were forty-nine exquisitely crafted dolls (one for each state and the District of Columbia) dressed in French couture fashion ranging from years 1706-1906 – a gift from Society of Parisian Couturieres (see note).[v] Initially, the dolls were meant to tour the United States, but they proved too delicate for extensive travel. Instead, they were given to the Brooklyn Museum of Costume in New York where they reside today (to read the museum’s original press release announcing their acquisition of the dolls, please click here).[vi]    

One of the many notable features of the dolls are their poseable exoskeleton-like frames. The metal wire foundational structure for each of the forty-nine Merci Train dolls was created by designer Eileen Bonabel, in 1945, for the Théâtre de la Mode European tour (see note).[vii] Just like their Théâtre predecessors (in most every way), the Merci Train dolls stand about 24” in height with the wire frames of their bodies being completely exposed, except for their heads and necks, which are artfully sculpted in fine plaster and crowned with real human hair. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “each designer chose a year between 1715 [sic] and 1906 for which to dress his doll. Their varying sources of inspiration included works of art, literature, and historic fashion plates."[viii]

To view more detailed photographs of these remarkable dolls, please visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or visit my Pinterest page. 

Blessings and happy sewing!

(Proper citation when referencing this article: Thornhill, Angela. "The Origins of the 1949 Merci Train Dolls." The Merry Dressmaker. Blogspot, 08 MAR 2012. <> (Accessed [Date]).

[i] Hamer, Fritz. “The Merci Train from South Carolina: When France and the Palmetto State were Friends, 1947-1949.” The Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association, 2005. 19-20.
[ii] Scheele, Dorothy. “The 1947 Friendship Food Train to Europe.” The Friendship Train of 1947. <> (Accessed 05 MAR 2012).
[iii] Pearson, Drew. “The Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Bell Syndicate (14 FEB 1949).
[iv] Pearson, Drew. “The Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Bell Syndicate (11 JAN 1949).
[v] Hamer 23. Note: Hamer states that the forty-nine dolls are dressed in fashions representing the years 1796-1906 (an obvious typographical error); this in contrast to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s repository description which states that the dolls’ dresses are representative of the years 1715-1906. Primary and secondary sources confirm the Brooklyn Museum’s date of 1706-1906. Please see the Brooklyn Museum’s April 1949 press release announcing their acquisition of the dolls.
[vi] Pearson, Drew. “The Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Bell Syndicate (19 APR 1949).
[vii] The Théâtre de la Mode opened in 1945 as a traveling exhibit of 200 dolls, which were used as an alternative to human models, to showcase the latest post-war fashion trends emerging from the French couture houses. The idea of the traveling exhibit was conceived by French designer Robert Ricci as a way to restore the French fashion industry to its former glory and to generate funds for post-war relief. Many of the Théâtre dolls are currently housed at the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington.  
[viii] “1906 Doll.” Metropolitan Museum of Art <> (Accessed 07 MAR 2012).

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