Historic Brown County Dolls Land Spot in the Smithsonian
June 15, 2015
Two historic Brown County dolls will be making their debut in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History beginning in July. The two dolls, which will be featured in a permanent exhibit, “American Enterprise,” will showcase Brown County talent and innovation, along with preserving an important part of its history.
Both Brown County’s Abigail and Nancy Hanks dolls represent a Brown County success story during difficult times, which is exactly why they were selected to be part of this exhibit.
A product of the Great Depression, both dolls were inspired by the inventiveness, hard work, and dedication of a plain housewife whose husband's piano factory became bankrupt and closed. After moving to Brown County when her husband lost his job, Portia Howe Sperry was determined to get her family back on its feet.
During her time at the Brown County Folks Shop, which is now the Nashville House, Sperry developed the Abigail doll. Sperry employed local women to help create the doll, including her hinged arms and legs, blonde braids, old fashioned print dress, sunbonnet and pantaloons. This endeavor provided women with jobs during a time when finding work was difficult and money was scarce. Additionally, Sperry had local artist and internationally known color etcher, L.O. Griffith, sketch Abigail’s face, which was then hand painted by his wife.
After the doll began to gain popularity, Sperry wrote a book chronicling the tale of Abigail to go along with the doll. The story, which was set in the 1830s, followed the Calvin family as they moved from Kentucky to Brown County during pioneer times. Susan Calvin and her doll, Abigail, share their adventures in the book. Currently, the Abigail book continues to be published by the Indiana Historical Society and is available online.
Sperry’s Nancy Hanks doll, based on President Abraham Lincoln’s mother, was the second doll to be created, yet was actually what piqued the Smithsonian’s interest in the first place. After a woman in Pennsylvania donated her Nancy Hanks doll to the Smithsonian, a curator with the museum contacted Sperry’s granddaughters to inform them about the donation, as well as to express their interest in including it in an exhibit.
Upon sending the museum additional information about their grandmother and her story, including how the Abigail doll had helped women find work during the Depression, the Smithsonian requested both dolls for their exhibit “American Enterprise.”
Set to open July 2015, this exhibit will be a permanent addition to the National Museum of American History and will focus on the role of business and innovation from 1770 through 2010. Both the Abigail doll and the Nancy Hanks doll will be included as part of the exhibit and will be rotated for preservation purposes.
Sarah Mitchell, one of Sperry’s granddaughters, is thrilled that the Smithsonian has decided to feature her grandmother’s work. “It’s such a success story of someone coming out of the Depression,” she said. “We’re really honored and it’s great recognition of the history that’s in Brown County and the kind of people that lived there, including my family.”
The Abigail doll is now trademarked and has been owned by the extended family since 1932. Mitchell, along with her sister, took over creating the Abigail doll in 2006. Despite moving to Colorado, Sperry’s granddaughters continue to produce the dolls, keeping their family tradition alive. “We have such strong family ties to Abigail,” said Mitchell. “It’s a commitment we have to our family and something we want to keep going.”
Working with doll makers in Colorado to re-create the charming Abigail doll, Sperry’s granddaughters continue to honor their grandmother’s vision. Abigail dolls are still available for purchase and can be found online at abigaildoll.com, as well as at the Spears Gallery in Nashville, the site of the original Brown County Folks Shop.
The new Brown County History Center also has an Abigail doll on display for interested visitors. The History Center is located at 90 E. Gould Street in downtown Nashville.
Not only are Sperry’s dolls an example of American enterprise at its finest, they also preserve a precious piece of Brown County history. For more information on the story behind Brown County’s Abigail and Nancy Hanks dolls, please visit abigaildoll.com.