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Dining with Dolls

 

 

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Michael doll, Heurich House Museum Collection

One of the objects most asked about by museum visitors is Michael, a hand-stitched doll that was purchased by the Heurich family around 1913. On most days, Michael lives on a stand under a cloche in front of the mirror on the dining room’s breakfront. To modern sensibilities, seeing an old doll in 100-year old clothing in a dining room is a bit creepy, and visitors often make comments to that effect. Delving deeper into Michael’s history may help 21st century visitors empathize with its owner, Amelia Heurich, and explain our own uneasiness with old dolls.

Born in Germany, Michael was crafted by now world-renowned doll-maker, Käthe Kruse. Kruse began making prototypes of dolls in 1905 for her daughter Maria after recognizing that none of the dolls in the stores were warm and cuddly, but rather made of cold porcelain. Having been asked to display some of her dolls in an exhibition in Berlin, Kruse soon became very famous. A sales representative from FAO Schwarz toy store in New York noticed her talent, in 1911 the store placed an order for 100 dolls, and soon thereafter they ordered another 500. While Michael is not one of the FAO Schwarz series dolls, he is one of the original dolls from the Kruse company, aptly named “Doll I” and was likely created in 1913.  The Heurich family traveled extensively throughout Germany during the summer of 1913, including Berlin.The three children, Christian Jr (age 12), Anita (8) and Karla (6) would have accompanied their parents and might have played with Michael during their trip, where they most likely purchased the doll.

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The Kathe Kruse signature on Michael’s foot.

It is not clear whether the Heurichs purchased the doll for their children, but we do know that Amelia adopted it as her own. According to family oral history, Sunday dinner in Christian and Amelia’s dining room was was always open to their extended family. As the three children grew up and had their own families, the number potential dinner guests also grew.

If on a particular Sunday, the number of guests to appear at dinner happened to be thirteen, an unlucky number, Amelia used Michael as the cure, setting a fourteenth place and seating him at the table with the other guests.

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Heurich Family dinner ca.1945-56.  Amelia Heurich at the far left.  From Amelia clockwise: Amy Eckles, Chippy King, Geoffrey, Anita and Charles Eckles, Christian Heurich Jr, Connie Heurich, Jan King and Stanley Eckles. Michael not pictured.

Why does the idea of dining with a doll feel so creepy to our 21st century sensibilities? Perhaps it’s the superstition at the heart of the story that makes us feel so ill-at-ease.

Superstitions during the Victorian period were abundant, among these was triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13. As with most beliefs that we currently view as superstition, the fear of 13 has origins older than the Victorian period, and is founded in stories  from various cultures and religions: the 13th person to arrive at the Last Supper was Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus; Norse folklore holds that a 13th god who appeared at a dinner party of 12, Loki, unleashed evil and chaos into the world. These beliefs didn’t end when the Victorian era did. Many modern buildings still omit the 13th floor.  People often “knock on wood” to avoid something bad happening in the future. Opening an umbrella indoors is thought to be a poor choice. Walking under an open ladder is obviously something to be avoided. The fact that many modern people continue to adopt superstitious behaviors should help us understand the way Amelia used Michael at dinner. At the minimum, understanding the roots of superstition should help us empathize with her.

Superstition itself is thought to be a way for anxious people to order their worlds. According to WebMD, “[a]lthough personality variables are not a strong factor in developing superstition, there is some evidence that if you are more anxious than the average person you’re slightly more likely to be superstitious.”

Amelia Heurich was certainly a person that had anxious tendencies, as noted several times in her journal:

“CH, Jr., learned he did not pass some courses and was being dropped from rolls: Anita had to take extra lesson to pass at Goucher; I have been worrying and crying all day.  I always have something to worry about.” – July 9, 1920

“Remained home all day worrying as usual.  They began to put our new fountain together.  I think this will make quite an improvement.”  – Mary 8, 1922

“I have to worry about Karla.  She does not want any clothes.” -June 24, 1922

“I worry too much about everything.  Chr. Jr. worries me so much as does also Karla.  Chr. is now receiving clerk at the savings Dept.” – July 7, 1924

Jan Evans, one of Christian and Amelia’s grandchildren recently equated her grandmother’s superstition with her need for order: “Oh yes we always had Michael…Grandmother was very superstitious! [For example, y]ou don’t put a hat on a bed…you just don’t do that.”

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Anna Marguerite, 4 months and 10 days old,  Heurich House Museum Collection

Christian and Amelia Heurich were also interested in Spiritualism, another common practice during the Victorian period, and Amelia believed she could communicate with spirits for her entire adult life. The roots of Amelia’s Spiritualism and superstitious beliefs may lie in tragedy. The Heurichs’ first-born daughter, Anna Marguerite, died as an infant of unknown causes. In compiling a family history, Peter Keyser said of his Aunt Amelia:

She believed in spiritualism.  Spiritualism was at its peak in the late 19th century and is still firmly believed in by some.  When the Little Flower, Fiorello LaGuardia, was a congressman…he came to the house for séances.  At the time he was a Republican and was welcome.  When Mom and I visited, if the woodwork in the sitting room cracked, as it occasionally does in every house, or if a drapery or portier rustled, Aunt Amelia might say “’that was little Anna Marguerite.’

Perhaps subscribing to fear of unknown consequences by allowing thirteen people at dinner or not acknowledging the spirits of their lost daughter led Amelia to become the superstitious and anxious person she seemed to be.  With context, it’s clear Amelia’s reasoning and reactions to certain unnatural things were the way she coped with a world she had little control of and the tragedies that she suffered.

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