Ninette Bradley doll from Etsy seller MyraMelinda

I am the eldest of three sisters. Sometimes my friends assume that I am the youngest. I don’t know if that’s because my other sisters seem more accomplished than I am, or maybe I just act like a baby. Who knows? But it was I who was born first amongst this weird trio of siblings. We’re two years apart each. More or less. And at different points in our lives, we’ve probably felt closer to one sister over the other, and that’s a thing that is always in flux. I don’t know how they might feel about it, but I know these things happen and it’s okay. Some of us have more in common with another sister, and that’s fine, too. And this, too, is eternally subject to change.

One thing that I think we can all agree on at the current moment, is our mutual obsession with a particular set of dolls that we owned when we were very young. I say “owned” but that never feels quite right, does it, when you’re a kid and you’re not allowed to play with or even touch the item that supposedly belongs to you? Anyway, we’re all in our 40s now and these childhood fascinations came up as a topic of conversation when a few weeks ago we were chatting online and one of us mentioned our long-ago memory of these dolls, and asked if each of us also had a recollection of them

Well, of course, I do; I’ve probably thought about that doll every day of my life and continue to do so this very moment. I was utterly obsessed with her. She sat atop a chest of drawers, so high at the time I could barely reach the bottom of her skirts. She wore a frothy periwinkle lace frock (my sisters insist it was lilac but I know what I know!) and a ruffled bonnet and a knot of opalescent pearls around her throat. Our middle sister, whose room I shared at the time, had a similar doll that stood next to mine. Hers was chestnut-haired, where mine was frosty blonde, and hers swanned about in a deep burgundy dress whose tiers were crowned with cream-colored ruffles.

Our baby sister slept down the hall from us at that point in time, so her doll lived out of reach on her own chest of drawers, in her own room. We gradually came to agree that hers was a bit of an outlier; comparable in face and figure, but as she was a sassy cowgirl in suede and braids, her attire lacked the refinement and glamour of the other two. In retrospect, she was no less charming, but I think at the time my sister harbored a fair bit of resentment about being stuck with the doll who was, in the eyes of a sensitive little girl, not as good or beautiful as her two older sister’s dolls. I think they were all three lovely, but I get where she’s coming from.

You can get Cowgirl Mandy from this amazon seller.

I should mention, though you’ve probably guessed it: we’ve not seen these dolls in years. We have no idea what happened to them, although I suspect they were sold at a garage sale when my family moved from Ohio down to FL in 1985. Independently of each other the night of our doll discussion/debate, we each performed midnight acts of searchery and sleuthery, and we all arrived at the same conclusion. These vintage mysteries with their lavish Victorian/Grand Ole Opry style costumes, silky wigs, and haunting eyes were Bradley Dolls.

There doesn’t seem to be an official site for these gals but most of my reading points to the Bradley line of dolls being manufactured in Japan and Korea for the American market from the mid-50s until the early 80s; Artmark’ or ‘Treasure Dolls’ are two other brand names they were released under. The dresses are often elegant period pieces, with big hoop skirts and plenty of lacy frills, although their catalogs included a variety of themes and styles, including a few ‘mod’ ones that are noted as being the most elusive and most sought after. Some versions of the dolls had large, eyes, reminiscent of manga or anime characters, and the odd feature of strange, nightmarishly contorted fingers. Ours, thankfully, had the garden variety hands

Thus far both of my sisters have been able to identify the dolls that belonged to them. Middle sister has already located and purchased one to cherish anew, but baby sister, and I quote, still thinks her was “stupid and ugly”. Poor Cowgirl Mandy!

Search as I may, I can’t seem to track down my icy blue beauty. She was one of the fanciest things I had ever seen at 7 years old, and her influence has loomed large over my style and preferences throughout my life, inspiring and informing my yearnings over time. However much I grow and change, there’s always going to be the heavily-lashed, unwavering gaze of that exquisite doll, urging, Sarah, let’s be fancy. Let’s be fancy forever.

Heeding her impeccable advice, I think it’s time I too found a replacement. Sadly, it is looking as though I might never be able to find the original doll, but if it’s possible, I may have found one that I love just as much. I may be clearing a spot on my chest of drawers as we speak. And this time, I’ll even be tall enough to reach up out touch her dress, feel the folds of lace, fondle her pearl buttons. And best of all, she’ll really be mine. Not just “sit on a shelf to look at and never touch,” but well and truly mine!

Getting older is the pits but I guess at least we can finally play with our toys.

Candice doll from Etsy seller RogueRetro


Melmeister says

If anything, I think this "new" Bradley doll that you've chosen is more fitting for your dead-people-goth aesthetic, or whatever I once called it; the almost monochromatic color scheme of the dress and pale skin are perfect.

I wonder, perhaps that's a way for me to overcome my resentment? Maybe I need to empower myself to choose the RIGHT Bradley Doll for myself now, as a grown damned woman.

S. Elizabeth says

YES YES DO IT! Use your agency and empowerment to BUY A NEW DOLL!

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