Early American children had few store-bought toys. Usually, their toys were made at home from things that would otherwise have been discarded. Two excellent examples of this: apple head dolls and cornhusk dolls.
To make an apple head doll, peel an apple. Decide where you will make the face. Having determined which way is up, poke a dowel into the bottom of the apple.
Use an apple peeler or other age-appropriate tools to make eyes, nose, and mouth. Set your apple into a bottle or other container and set it in the classroom window. In a week or two, your apple will have dehydrated, shrinking into a wizened face. Use yarn, fabric, or other art supplies to dress your doll. Poke cloves into the eye sockets for eyes. Add color to the face if you like.
Martha Stewart shows off some apple dolls starting at 5:25 in the video below.
Cornhusk dolls were also made by both pioneers and Native Americans. Try making some, with the very clear directions at the link.
This project is a good one for art class, and it gives practice with useful life skills, since students will peel an apple or husk corn. Following directions is obviously a big part of this, too. Here are some more connections to bring it into the curriculum:
- Our pioneer forefathers made corn husk and apple head dolls to play with. In general, store-bought toys were a very rare luxury, and it would be unusual for a pioneer child to have a doll that was not handmade. Nowadays, handmade dolls are the rarity. Have students try to find handmade dolls to bring into the classroom to show. Use their stories (real or imagined) as a writing assignment and set up a museum on a table in the classroom. Hitty Her First Hundred Years is a wonderful book about a handmade doll.
- If you make corn husk or apple dolls or both, you could set up experiments comparing the perishability (or the biodegradeability, if you are using that word) of the two materials. Use a store-bought doll as a control.
- The Smithsonian’s Native American Dolls lesson plan (PDF) is an impressive one, if you choose to extend the study of dolls. This lesson examines what dolls tell us about the cultures they come from.
- One thing that apple head and cornhusk dolls tell us is that people use what they have on hand to make things they need. This is a central and basic economics point: we have certain natural resources, and we use them to meet basic needs and wants. Archaeologists tell us that just about all cultures have dolls, made out of whatever was in plentiful supply. Discuss what conclusions can be drawn from these facts.
- Apple head dolls always end up looking elderly. Discuss the concept of respecting one’s elders.“What Do You Call Older People?” is a lesson examining not only the idea of respecting our elders, but also the concept of connotations and denotations of words. This concept can be very hard to grasp, and it is extremely important for critical reading and for writing. We think that a multisensory lesson combining the creation of apple head dolls with this lesson would really fix the idea in the students’ minds. We would make the dolls, study the pioneer era, and then, as the apples dried and took on the look of wrinkled faces, move on to the lesson on terms for older adults.
- Discuss the point of dolls. Even today, it is usually girls who play with dolls. Once you’ve identified the purpose of dolls — for imaginative play, for example — discuss what fills this role for boys. Are teddy bears or action figures similar to dolls? Do they serve the same purposes?