Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

To say that Renee Silvester loves dolls is an understatement. Her personal collection consists of over 200, with the oldest dating back to 1860.

“This doll is called a wax over doll. Her arms, legs, and feet are hand-carved wood, and her eyes are glass. Her shoulder plate and head are papier mache. In those days they poured wax over the papier mache to preserve it. She’s in pretty good shape, but I have to restore the body,” says Silvester, proprietor of Calling All Dolls, a Doll Shop and Doll Hospital in Cobalt, Connecticut.

Wax dolls were fashionable during the late 1700s to the early 1900s and were prized because of their realistic faces, which could be tinted to match human skin tones. But while they had the advantage of being shatter-proof, unlike porcelain, they were easily crushed or scratched; and when subject to extreme temperatures, could melt. Needless to say, they did not last long; although today, an antique wax figure in good condition can cost a collector anywhere between five hundred to two thousand dollars. Most wax dolls are not simple to repair. But Silvester, who has restored numerous houses including the 1800s Italianate home where she, the doll shop, and hospital reside, can fix practically anything.

“I bought the house nine years ago, and the shop has been open for seven. It took me two years to restore both the interior and exterior, but I always wanted to save an historical home. I used to come here when it was an antique store and thought it would be a perfect spot for the dolls. I felt the house calling me but had to wait three years until the owner got realistic with the price,” says Silvester.

The original owners of the house had mined metals on the Connecticut River they transformed into pewter and silver plate goblets called Britannia Ware. Later, after the Civil War broke out, they made hardware for coffins; and their business took off, enabling them to add onto the front of the house in 1860. Silvester uses this area to display all the dolls, stuffed animals, doll furniture, shoes, and clothes she has for sale, while the back is the hospital, lined with small beds and shelves containing some of the rarest and oldest dolls in her collection.

Calling All Dolls is part store, part hospital, and part museum; and Silvester knows the history, construction, and provenance of nearly every doll in the place. She sells a wide variety that include American Girl; vintage dolls; baby dolls; dolls dressed in elaborate costumes and clothing; antique dolls; and porcelain dolls. She has famous dolls like the Kewpies, designed by cartoonist Rose O’Neill in the early 1900s; and from TV shows in the 1960s and 1970s like Mrs. Beasley from Family Affair. Crissy with the retractable long red hair and Chatty Cathy, a pull string talking doll, were also very popular during this period. However, Barbie has never graced Silvester’s store or personal collection. Barbie came onto the scene in the 1960s selling in drug stores for five dollars, but simply never piqued Silvester’s fancy.

“Every 10 years there seem to be changes in the industry. I can always tell how old somebody is by the dolls they had. There is always one special doll they remember,” says Silvester.

Silvester grew up in the great doll era of the 1950s. She started out playing with baby dolls, pretending they were real babies; but when the Toni doll came out, everything changed. That’s the one she remembers most. “Toni was a little girl doll and a big hit. I got one, and that just did it for me. She had the prettiest face in the world,” recalls Silvester.

Other dolls with beautiful faces in Silvester’s shop are a series of high-end dolls from Germany made by Annette Himstedt and Nicole Marschollek, the top doll artists in the world. Each are cast in vinyl and resemble actual people. Himstedt traveled the globe taking photos of children in each country she visited, and then copied their clothing and faces to create a series of dolls that are extremely realistic.

“If you have worked with clay before you can’t even comprehend how hard that is,” says Silvester. “They are simply gorgeous. The eyes are either mouth blown glass or human prosthetic eyes. Women buy them and dress them up for the holidays. They are very expensive and retail for three hundred to one thousand dollars.”

Himstedt retired in 2008, and Marschollek took the designs one step further.

“Nicole doesn’t believe all people are beautiful, so why do we have all these beautiful dolls? You will see this difference in the faces of her dolls,“says Silvester.

In the back of the building is the doll hospital with pieces from Silvester’s collection. She used to host birthday parties in that room before the hospital superseded the retail business, and decorated it with her American Girl dolls and her Skookum dolls, which are handmade Native American dressed souvenir dolls from the 1920s and 1930s.

“These dolls were patented by Mary Dwyer McAboy. It was a cottage industry. They would put kits out to housewives who wanted to work from home, and each decorated the dolls in her own way,” Silvester says.

Silvester also has a collection of antique composition dolls on display that are very old. Although production on these dolls ceased in 1949, she possesses quite a few from the 1920s including a Patsy doll. They are crafted from wood pulp and are among her favorites. They were often modeled after famous figures such as Skippy  (a cartoon character), Shirley Temple, and Pinocchio. A lot of the repair work Silvester undertakes is on composition dolls.

“Composition doesn’t hold up unless it’s in a proper temperature. A lot of people don’t know that. They store the dolls in the attic, and they crack. I sand them down and then use different clays to remold the doll. It’s a lot of work, but I have saved many and brought them back to life,” she says.

The Internet has really changed the doll business. Years ago, people had to search high and low for certain dolls, whereas today they can access pages full of once hard-to-find dolls at their fingertips.

“It’s taken the thrill out of collecting; but in other ways it’s a wonderful thing because I never would have found these beautiful black composition dolls, for example, if I did not find them online. Now we can get dolls we could never get before, so for those of us that still want to collect, it’s a good thing,” says Silvester.

Silvester has known since the age of twelve that she would one day own a doll shop and hospital, although when she first opened her doors in 2010 she had no idea if she would be successful because girls today spend more time playing on their smart phones than they do with dolls. Still, Silvester was undeterred.

“It’s been a lifelong dream. I knew I loved dolls and wanted to show people beautiful dolls they have never seen,” she says.

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