In the basement of the State Historical Museum of Iowa there’s a box of hairless, 18-inch porcelain dolls. They each bear a passing likeness to Mrs. Billie Ray, the wife of Robert Ray, Iowa’s 38th governor.
“It looks like we have Billie Rays at least to last for another, just counting, so we got six, seven Billie Ray figures still that can be dressed as first ladies,” explains Leo Landis, Iowa’s state historian.
For every first spouse in Iowa history, all the way back to territorial governors, there’s a porcelain doll wearing the outfit that woman wore to her husband’s inaugural ball. If there wasn’t documentation of what a wife wore, her doll is dressed in a formal, period gown. The doll of Gov. Kim Reynold’s husband Kevin will be the collection’s first male.
While the torsos are made of muslin, the doll heads and lower limbs have a bisque finish that’s almost stone-like in texture.
“It doesn’t have that high finish glaze that you would get on…porcelain china,” says Landis. “As we move her around, you can kind of hear the rattle of the porcelain against each other.”
Each first lady doll has the face of Billie Ray because she spearheaded the collection, which is owned by the Terrace Hill Foundation. It was unveiled in late 1976, as one of the Iowa projects created under the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission.
Some have suggested dressing one of the extra Billie Rays in a tuxedo for the Kevin Reynolds doll, but that probably won’t work. These dolls have dainty hands and feet, and a cartoonishly extreme waist-to-hip ratio. It’s likely an entirely new mold will have to be made.
The governor’s office says the first spouse will have a doll, but an artist has yet to be identified. One of the lead artists of the collection’s first 43 dolls is Judy Sutcliffe of Audubon. Sutcliffe’s collaborator Lorraine Larsen has died, and Sutcliff no longer works with porcelain, so she’s not interested in returning to the project.
“I guess they could go down to Walmart and buy a Ken doll, and dress him up,” she jokingly says over the phone from her gallery in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, where she now lives part-time.
In all seriousness, Sutcliffe thinks it’s pretty cool that a project she started more than 40 years ago will now include a male doll.
“We might have once thought about it and laughed at the thought, because we would never have thought in those days that [a female governor and first gentleman] would happen,” she says. “It was only first ladies.”
If the next artist follows Sutcliff and Larsen’s technique, they will have create a sculpture of Kevin Reynolds and then a make a mold of that sculpture. Next they’ll pour the liquid porcelain into the mold, sand the seams, paint the doll, and then fire the doll in a kiln. Also, someone will have to design and sew the clothes, and style the doll’s hair.
Unlike earlier dolls, there won’t be any Bicentennial Commission funding from the federal government to pay for the Kevin Reynolds edition. While it might be the fiscally or logistically logical choice, ending the project at this time could be controversial.
“It should have been done when we had a male governor, rather than a first female governor,” says Dianne Bystrom, head of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “By discontinuing the collection now, that actually seems a little bit more sexist.”
If you’re a fan of art, fashion or history, the doll collection is a must see. But Bystrom suggests that it’s a dated way to portray women.
After all, the exhibit is a display case full of wives with identical faces. The dolls’ only distinguishing qualities are hair styles, clothes and names. Also, most of the tiny gold placards don’t list the first names of the women they represent. Instead they’re styled with the husband’s full name, i.e. Mrs. James Grimes, Mrs. William Harding, Mrs. Terry Brandstad.
“At the very least, someone should go in and make sure the woman are identified by their first and last names,” says Bystrom. “I think another good idea would be to have a little bio on each woman.”
State historian Leo Landis agrees the display could use updating.
“Whether I’m writing a label about a husband or a wife. I always make sure to use their first name, not a ‘Mrs.,’” he says. “Those people had their own history and their own achievements.”
So perhaps now that the first lady doll collection is becoming the first spouse doll collection, some other changes might follow.