I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published January 3rd 2011
Few people know that Beatrice Alexander Behrman, founder of the Madame Alexander Doll Company, was a daughter of Russian-born American immigrants. Born in 1895 and raised over her father's doll hospital in Brooklyn, she played with broken dolls while they waited to be mended, and later, capitalized on her interests by starting her own doll line while she was still in her twenties.
The Madame Alexander Company was an immediate success. Behrman became a pioneer in her field, even beating out the yo-yo in popularity throughout the Great Depression. She created the first-ever dolls based on licensed characters, including a Scarlett O'Hara doll from the film Gone With the Wind and dolls based on the characters in the tale Little Women.
In the 1940s, the Madame Alexander Doll Company became a leader among America's successful and beloved toy manufacturers, but instead of resting on her laurels, Behrman introduced the first dolls with "sleepy" eyes, the first line of patriotic dolls, and the first dolls made from hard plastic.
Today, visitors to the factory can spend time in the Heritage Gallery and see more than 600 handcrafted Madame Alexander dolls that span the company's amazing, award-winning line. Highlights from the gallery include prototypes that were never manufactured, interesting notes from Behrman herself, as well as plenty of details about how dolls have been manufactured and marketed over the years, including demonstrations of the doll-making process. Be sure to check out the litany of tiny accessories as well as several dollhouses and tons of ephemera like storyboards, magazine clippings, and photographs that illustrate the company's long history in New York City.
Free, guided tours of the factory—once used to make Studebakers—are available to the public. They include the gallery and the showroom and are given every 45 minutes during the week, and by appointment on weekends. Better still is the affordable "Behind-the-Scenes" tour that includes the regular guided tour as well as visits to the design and sewing and production sections of the factory, including the doll hospital where visitors can watch how doll hair is re-rooted and how those tiny straw hats are woven on 80-year-old machines.
Children will especially love the workshop/tour combination that enables them to make their very own Madame Alexander doll. Besides getting to choose their own hair color, skin color, and style, they'll get to pick from a choice of different fashionable outfits and accessories. Better than going to a store to pick out one of your favorites, a visit to the Madame Alexander Doll Factory gives kids a unique and educational experience while going home with a one-of-a-kind creation that enables them to partake in the doll-making process. Group tours and exciting children's birthday or tea parties may also be arranged; visit the website for specific details. (The children's party packages are wonderfully affordable, have plenty of thoughtful extras like invitations, thank-you cards, and gift bags, and include time spent in a beautifully decorated party room.)