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June 18, 2020

Creep or Creeping? These Creeping Baby Dolls From the 1870s May Haunt Your Dreams Forever!

First of all, creeping is what they called crawling back then, and as recently as the early 19th century the question of whether babies should be allowed to crawl was still hotly debated. Crawling was what crazy people and animals did and as such was morally suspect, even “unnatural” for a sane human. By the mid-1800s, however, crawling was seen as a natural stage of childhood and the popularity of devices such as the standing stool began to wane.

Meanwhile, as industrial mass production took over from individual toy makers and technology itself became a source of convenience and fascination, dolls with clockwork elements became increasingly popular toys. Instead of the rag doll with a change of clothes, wood, ceramic, and metal automata put on a show of blinking eyes, moving limbs and mouths, or two faces that would turn with a flip of a switch. Dollmaking was becoming the province of inventors and machinists, not just designers. After the Civil War, American dollmakers tried to get a piece of the action by upping the mechanization ante. The baby doll with a wax head and a crawling motion powered by an internal clockwork mechanism was an attempt to tap into this trend.

Now here’s certainly a creep, it’s actually called a “Creeping Baby Doll” which was first patented by Robert J. Clay on March 14, 1871. In the application, he describes his creepy baby as “a very amusing toy... produced at small cost.”

The prototype in the Smithsonian, however, is a slightly later iteration. Clay’s patent was number 112,550. The creep baby on display at the National Museum of American History is the patent model for patent number 118,435, submitted by George P. Clarke and accepted on August 29, 1871. Clay was Clarke’s boss and the later patent was an improvement on Clay’s original model.





The doll’s head, two arms and two legs are made of painted plaster. The arms and legs are hinged to a brass clockwork body that actuates the arms and legs in imitation of crawling, but the doll moves forward by rolling along on two toothed wheels. A flat piece of wood is attached to top of the movement.

To be fair to George Pemberton Clarke, whose model was an improvement on one invented by his boss, Robert J. Clay, the final production toy was nowhere near as terrifying as the patent model. The National Museum of American History has one of those too, although they’re not certain when it was made:






You can just see the gear and wheels peeking out from under her belly and armpit, but all dressed up with her little bonnet she’s significantly less spine-chilling. Still not much of a cuddly toy for little girls to play house with, however. Indeed, she ultimately found a market as a novelty, one of a number of wind-up metal toys including Girl Skipping Rope and Toy Gymnast made by the Automatic Toy Works, a small New York mechanical toy company founded by Robert J. Clay.

In 1872, a year after the first Creeping Baby made her debut, he submitted a patent application for another so-called improvement to the design: the Crying Creeping Baby Doll. A projecting blade made of rubber or paste would strike the notches of a toothed wheel as it turned, thus producing a sound that Clay assures us is “in imitation of the crying of a child, or of an animal voice.”

The non-crying Creeping Baby went on to have a long career. Clay’s company was in business from 1868 until 1874 when it was bought by Connecticut toy makers the Ives Manufacturing Company in 1874. Ives continued to produce automata under the Automatic Toy Works imprimatur for years after the acquisition, expanding the line with clockwork mechanisms that make the Creeping Baby look like the teddy bear from the Snuggle commercials.

(via The History Blog)




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