Sarah Boyd, of Maryville, is perhaps Tennessee’s only “doll doctor.” The idea of the “doll doctor” as one who meticulously—and lovingly—restores and repairs precious toys is more than a century old, with examples found in children’s literature around the world. Doll doctors and doll hospitals are found in various corners of the United States, each taking on the distinctive character of its place and purpose.
“I joined the Oak Ridge Area Doll Club and met some very talented and smart ladies who collect and practice some repair, but did not do it for other people,” Sarah says. “I also went to one convention of the United Federation of Doll Collectors when it was in Nashville. I learned there that there is an organization of Doll Doctors. I am told that I am the only one listed in Tennessee. I get ‘patients’ mailed to me from states as far away as Maine, California, and Florida!”
For Sarah, the pathway to this art form, not surprisingly, started in childhood. “I learned to make doll clothes at age 9. My mom was a kindergarten teacher. She and my grandma taught me to sew and take care of my toys. Jump forward many years and after two kids and 18 years of teaching school, I learned to make porcelain dolls from a fine person named Mary Cua. I was making porcelain dolls when I discovered that more people wanted me to fix their well-loved treasures than to buy something new. I like this ‘less-throw-away’ trend on many levels. That’s when it all came together. With each new ‘patient,’ I learned a little more. A dear friend and ‘adopted Mom’ named Paula Barham, who ran The Miniature and Dollhouse Shop in Knoxville, took me under her wing and helped me research old dolls and how they were made, how to minimize the changes and thus retain the value and character of the doll, and so many other things!”
As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program this year, Sarah will teach apprentice Elizabeth Fulbright her methods for repairing and restoring dolls and stuffed animals, including the skills needed to work with porcelain, china, ceramic, composition, plastic, vinyl, fabric, and wood. For Elizabeth, “doll doctoring” provides a deeply meaningful service to those who have cherished the figures for generations in many cases. “I want to study under Sarah Boyd because of her ability to restore vintage dolls for their owners, usually a family member of the original owner,” Elizabeth explains. “It is very rewarding to be able to help the current owner reconnect with the original owner, usually a grandparent or other member of their family. This type of restoration is an art form in itself, much like the preservation of any heirloom passed from generation to generation; it is much like the restoration/preservation of heirloom quilts. It allows the next generation to connect with relatives long gone on a personal level.”
*This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.