2012 UPDATE: The Madame Alexander Heritage Gallery is closed until early 2013 because the company is moving facilities.
After the museum I decided to walk down Broadway, since I am not very familiar with Washington Heights, and I wanted to check out the neighborhood (it turns out there wasn’t a lot to see on Broadway other than restaurants and bodegas). On a whim I stopped by the Madame Alexander Doll Factory on 131st Street where I went to a sample sale several years ago. At the time I wanted to go on a tour, but they were only available by reservation for groups of fifteen or more. I never bothered trying to put together a group since I don’t have friends who are (still) interested in dolls.
I collected dolls when I was younger and attended a lot of doll shows with my mother (mostly Madame Alexander and Ginny’s, as well as Steiffs and Muffies, which are stuffed animals). I also liked American Girl Dolls (I actually worked at American Girl Place as a seasonal personal shopping assistant in college), but I consider those play dolls rather than collectibles.
I am so happy I decided to stop by Madame Alexander, because not only do they now have a store there, but they also offer daily tours to the public. On the website it says you need a reservation for the tours, but they no longer have the fifteen person minimum. I am not sure how often the tours run, but when I got there the receptionist said the next tour would begin in twenty minutes and last about a half hour. I only waited a few minutes when a group of school children from a local charter school arrived. A toy designer was going to lead them on a special tour and asked if I would like to join the group instead of waiting for the general tour. I said of course and we proceeded into the factory.
First, we watched a short documentary about the history of Madame Alexander, which was founded by Madame Beatrice Alexander Behrman in 1923. Madame Alexander’s father owned the first doll hospital in the U.S. and after seeing so many broken dolls she was inspired to create dolls for play. The company rarely makes porcelain dolls and most Madame Alexander dolls have hard plastic bodies.
Madame Alexander was the first company to make dolls based on licensed characters from books and movies. In 1955, she created the fashion doll Cissy, which was the first doll to have an adult body and high heeled feet (pre-dating Barbie by several years!). The tour guide told us that Cissy changed the play patterns of children because previously they considered dolls to be their contemporaries and after the creation of Cissy they viewed dolls as what they would become. The dolls are made in the U.S., which I think is great because it is important to support local businesses and employee people here. Although the doll’s bodies are produced in NYC, the tour leader/designer told us that they outsource for specialty finishes (ex. the beading on the clothes is done in India, since they specialize in beading there).
After watching the film we walked through the Heritage Gallery, which had glass displays with antique Madame Alexander dolls and modern dolls (flash use was not permitted in the gallery, so some of the photos are blurry).
Next we visited the factory where workers were sewing doll clothing. One worker demonstrated how he makes hats for the dolls on a sewing machine. As a special treat for the school group we were allowed to pick a hat from a multi-colored selection (I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for me to take one, but the tour leader offered it to me, so I took an adorable pink hat).
Then we went to the Doll Hospital and the tour leader assembled a doll’s head using rubber bands, glue, and a press. The doll’s body parts are held together with medical grade rubber bands, which can be easily fixed.
Next we saw the conference room, which was beautifully painted by one of the doll designers. The room can be rented out for birthday parties. We also visited the showroom where the latest dolls for 2009 were displayed. Unfortunately we were not permitted to take photos in the showroom because the dolls have not been released yet.
At the end of the tour the children were each allowed to pick one catalogue and the tour leader told me I could take as many as I wanted (they sell the catalogues at the front desk for $12. each). Before leaving I also visited the store, which had some good deals and was definitely less expensive than FAO Schwartz.
I especially enjoyed talking to the tour leader about her background (she had another career before becoming a toy designer). She told me there are eight designers on the design team and they studied toy, fashion, or costume design.
A trip to the Madame Alexander Factory probably won’t appeal to most adults, but I loved the experience.