Speaking of Antiquing – November 2016

As Christmastime draws near, I often reflect on favorite gifts. My daughter (and now granddaughters) always loved the beauty and intrigue of Matryoshka dolls, better known as Russian nesting dolls. They are bright and beautiful, intriguing and surprising. Most of us know about these hand-painted wooden dolls, separated in the middle to reveal another equally beautiful doll, which then reveals another small figure inside it…and so on. Typically, the last doll was a baby painted on a single piece of wood. The set could be played with for hours, opening and closing, stacking, or lining up the family.

The early Russian sets varied in that there were boys as well as girls included, it was symbolized as a complete family with different sexes, in stages of youth. Animals, soldiers, businessmen, peasants, and even political figures were featured on early dolls, as well holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. No matter the subject or theme, the dolls’ faces were each intricate and very detailed. One could look at the whole of the doll and see plain traditional garb. The women wore head scarves and traditional jumper dresses, long and shapeless everyday dress. Care was used to decorate the traditional apron. Many carried flowers, depicting seasonal favorites, and the roses that were highly prized.

It is believed that the dolls originated in Russia in the late 1890’s. They were introduced to the world at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 where they received a Bronze Medal. They were a huge success and orders from around the world flooded in.

Many places began making the dolls, but only the most skilled craftsmen did the turning. The wood used was linden or birch and had to be fresh and dried perfectly or it would crack or shatter. Great skill was exhibited in how thin the walls of the figures could be and the painting could be as plain or detailed as the painter desired.

The name Matryoshka means “little matron.” The Latin root “mater” means “Mother.” The name is associated with the image of mother with a big peasant family. Many popular female Russian names are derived from Matryoshka including Matriona and Matriosha.

Matryoshka dolls have received universal recognition as a symbol of Russian popular art. One tradition holds that if you put a written note with your wish inside a Matryoshka doll, it would come true. The more elaborate the more pieces the doll contained, the more notes one could place inside and the sooner the wish would come true.

Collecting these items is easy and fun, and prices can vary depending on age and intricacy.

Children and adults cannot resist opening a doll to see what is inside. Take special care with them as they can be fragile, and don’t get them wet.