OBJECT COLLECTIONS Cornshuck [Corn Husk] Dolls

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 32: Object Collections
Corn Husk Dolls

OBJECT COLLECTIONS Cornshuck [Corn Husk] Dolls

TAGS: object collections; cornshuck dolls; cornshuck craft; corn husk craft; dolls; Kitty Ritchie Singleton; May Ritchie Deschamps; Mallie Ritchie; Jewel Ritchie Robinson; Ritchie family; baskets; hickory-split baskets; Smithsonian Institution; dolls;

[Total dolls in the collection are 14. The collection is privately held].

All dolls were created by women members of the Ritchie family of Viper, Kentucky. May, Kitty, Mallie, and Jewel were the most prolific of the Ritchie doll makers. May and Kitty were students at Pine Mountain Settlement as were several other Ritchie children, including Raymond and Una. Other Ritchie children went to Hindman, and Jean, the youngest, was educated in the local public school system. The most famous of the sisters and the youngest sister, Jean Ritchie, most likely knew the craft and writes about making “poppets,” the name given to hand-made dolls, in her book, Singing Family of the Cumberlands (1955), illus. by Maurice Sendak.

The various corn husk/cornshuck dolls of the Ritchie sisters have been exhibited in major museums throughout the country and the work of May Ritchie is held in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. The works of the other sisters also reside in many folk-life collections and museums and in many private collections.


It is often asked who created which doll and if the makers can be identified by the style of the doll. The answer is “yes” — sort of. As the sisters themselves described it in a news article distributed by Associated Press in the 1970s when they were invited to Washington to demonstrate their craft, each doll carries markers of its creator. For example, Kitty Ritchie (Singleton) is known for her “goose girl” seen above in the center with the green skirt. Jewel Ritchie (Robinson) is known for her mother and daughter pairs. and Mallie Ritchie, who never married, has a style more like Shaker cornshuck dolls with few embellishments. Some dolls can be distinguished by their faces, and how lips and eyes are drawn in ink. Each of the dolls have their own character and the face detailing can also suggest which Ritchie made the doll. Most of the dolls are red-heads, a fact not lost on those who know the beautiful red-heads in the Ritchie family.


Almost all the dolls are approximately 8″ – 8.5″ tall, limited somewhat by the size of the husks. The dolls in this display have not retained much of the intensity of the original dye used to color the husk garments, baskets, and hats. Generally, the corn husks were purchased in their natural state and then dyed with synthetic dyes, such as RIT — some dyes have been more stable than others. The later originals are often more vibrant with color.

The husks used in the doll’s construction were not from local mountain harvests but came from California where there was a ready supply of tamale husks that are sturdier, more uniform. The cleaner and sturdier husks, dyed before assembling, have now mellowed from their more vibrant original state. Hats and baskets are often crocheted or woven with flat grass or plant stems. Interior wire makes the arms of each doll somewhat flexible. The head is a husk pulled tightly around a hard ball of cotton. Jewel, when asked how many dolls she had made, once remarked that she had “used a mattress stuffing their heads with cotton.”

* Associated Press article, n.d.

Gallery: OBJECT COLLECTIONS Cornshuck [Corn Husk] Dolls

GALLERY II Corn Husk Dolls and Hickory Split Baskets

See Also:
CRAFT Corn Husks

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