12 March 2010

Muñecas de Cartón Revisited

A couple years ago I wrote a piece aout "Muñecas de Cartón" which are dolls made of papier mâché that were popular with little girls in Central Mexico from the 1880's until around the 1960's. The railroads came to Mexico in the 1880's and with the railroads came the circus and the trapeze performers. The ladies of the trapeze in their sequined tights and garish outfits were quite a sight for young women everywhere and many a little girl had dreams of one day performing on the high wire. The muñecas de cartón are modeled after the female trapeze artists. From time to time I get inquiries from ladies about where they can purchase one of these dolls. Well, now is the season when you can find them for sale if it isn't already too late to find them at all. They get scarcer every year. If you are going to get one then you better do it now. They appear in the market here in Irapuato and surrounding cities around Palm Sunday and are usually sold along with Easter goods. You can generally find them during Semana Santa and then right after Easter they are gone. If you want one you should start looking for them very soon. The following is my original post which will tell you a little more about them.

Every spring around the time of Holy Week in Irapuato, Guanajuato, México where I live, there appear in the local market some peculiar dolls made of papier mâché. They are commonly called “muñecas de cartón” in Mexican Spanish. The word “muñeca” (moon-YEA-kah) can mean either “doll” or it can mean “wrist”, as in the wrist that connects your hand with your arm, depending upon the context in which the word “muñeca” is used. The word “cartón” (kar-TOHN), however, can be misleading because the word “cartón” is generally associated with the English word “cardboard”. The phrase “muñeca de carton” is actually a short form of the phrase “muñeca de cartón de piedra” or “doll made of rock paper”. The phrase “papier mâché” is of French origin meaning “chewed” or “masticated” paper but it translates into Spanish as “cartón de piedra”. I have also heard these dolls referred to at various times as “muñecas de Salamanca”, “muñecas de carnival”, “Las Lupitas”, “muñecas de cabaret”, and unfortunately “muñecas de puta”. I say unfortunately because the phrase “muñeca de puta” means “whore doll” or “prostitute doll”. I have never actually heard anyone refer to them this way in Mexico but there are people from the United States who buy them for five dollars or less in México and sell them on eBay for twenty-five dollars or more and refer to them by that disparaging name. How sad!

I used the word “peculiar” to describe these dolls for several reasons. For one thing, they only seem to be available in the spring of the year around Easter time. There are several sizes but no matter what the size they all seem to have come from the same general mold or they were all modeled after the same person. Most have dark painted hair but some have light brown or blond hair and they have movable arms and legs. They all seem to have the same face which is painted to look like a woman wearing a lot of makeup. They appear to be wearing an old style one piece bathing suit which is usually either green or lavender or blue with a bright circular design painted on the chest and incorporating a lot of shiny glitter. They usually have a necklace made of glitter and painted-on earrings. Sometimes there is also a woman’s name painted on the chest. Many of the ladies that I talk to who are fifty and older look at these dolls with great nostalgia and fondness because they remember receiving one almost every year at Easter when they were little girls. Being made out of papier mâché they were fairly bedraggled by the end of a year and so they were replaced annually by a kind mother and father. They didn’t cost very much so it was no great burden to the family. The boys would receive a broomstick horse with the horse’s head made out of the same material as the dolls were. In each and every case the people can describe to me how good a new doll or hobby horse smelled. They were made with a certain kind of carpenter’s glue called “goma de cola” which has a distinctive aroma that can evoke vivid memories. I have included below a photo of a muñeca that I bought not too long ago and a photo of some muñecas that were made around 1930 or 1940.

I have not been able to come up with a complete history yet but that is part of the joy of being alive. Life is a journey and not a destination and I know that “poco a poco” little by little, I will learn more. I have been able to piece together a little bit about them. First of all, the papier mâché industry began to emerge and prosper in France and Spain in the mid 1700’s. In Spain there were two cities in particular, Valencia and Salamanca, where the making of figures from papier mâché became quite popular and still is. Eventually this practice spread to México and was particularly used for the making of effigies of Judas Iscariot that were blown up with fireworks and burned on Holy Saturday. I don’t know for sure, but I am guessing that the making of papier mâché dolls in the spring was associated with the making of these Judas figures since they used the same material and process in making them.

One of the things that I have yet to learn is why these dolls are associated so much with the City of Celaya in the State of Guanajuato, not far from where I live. There are several families in Celaya who have been making these dolls for over one hundred years. The reason that the dolls look like they are wearing old fashioned, one piece bathing suits is because they are supposedly modeled after female circus trapeze performers. The circus became popular in México about the same time as it did in the rest of North America at the beginning of the last century and the appearance and costumes of the European style circus performers apparently took everyone by storm. These days there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for the dolls among little girls who would rather play with something more modern. The decline started in the 1950’s especially after the Mexican government put a halt in 1957 to the practice of blowing up Judas on Holy Saturday because the proliferation of fireworks was becoming too dangerous. I think there will always be a small market for the dolls however, as long as the women who remember them from childhood are still around…oh, yes, and probably as long as there is an eBay.


Chrissy y Keith said...

I confess that I did not read your entire post. But just for the record, I would like some one to design a doll that looks more realistic in the sitting position. These look like those naughty blow up dolls. Of course now I except some postings about "how would I know about that sort of thing" and such. My answer is

jennifer rose said...

Those are the ugliest dolls I've ever seen in my entire life -- and they have a sort of sinister appearance, a female version of Chucky the Clown. I knew some of the history of the dolls, but not as much as you've provided here. Thanks for a great post.

Leslie Harris (de Limon) said...

I've never seen these dolls before. I'm going to ask my in-law's if they've ever heard of them or seen them.

The face on the first one is kinda cute. But the awkward sitting position is a little creepy.

Thanks for teaching me something new today, Bob!

Saludos a Gina!

- Mexican Trailrunner said...

Good post, Bob, interesting. I've seen them around, but like others have said I'm not attracted to them either. Enjoyed reading the history tho.

1st Mate said...

Interesting that the one in the red outfit has light blue eyes. I see there's quite a range in quality among the dolls. I should think they'd sell at least as well as those dressed-up skeleton dolls. Do you suppose Betty Boop is an Americanized version of the muñeca de cartón?

La Cubanófila said...

I love mine. She is faded and worn, but will be with me forever. I wrote my own name on her torso and belted her with a pink silk ribbon. I love how you mention the smell of the cartón. Yes, it' distinctive. I always wondered if there was some kind of "animal product" associated with it if you catch my drift.

I have four mini muñecas, also, that stand and sit stiffly with their little widow's-peaked serious countenances. Love them, too.

The red doll you post is a beauty. Need to rent a car the next time I'm in Morelia or take the bus up to Irapuato. By the time I get there, they'll be gone. Easter will be over. :-(

No, I don't want to get one on ebay. No son puticas. Thanks for the great article. I always look forward to your next topic!

GlorV1 said...

Hi Bob. I like the first one. I sure would like to learn to make these dolls. What a great post. Enjoyed it very much. Have a great week.

One Small Voz said...

Wow, I have not seen these in Veracruz, but very interesting post! Makes me anxious to get back home (Mexico).

rebecca said...

oh! i remember reading this when you first posted it! i would LOVE for you to help me with a burning question. is the old factory in celaya still making these dolls? or are there a collection of different families doing this in their own homes?
would they be easy to locate?
i am very much interested in traditional papier mache.
thanks for your insights.

Anonymous said...

I'm 14 and my grandma said she's always wanted one when she was little but never got one because her family was very poor I want to get her one but there really expensive does anyone know where they sell them for cheap on the Internet at least 30$ or less

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.