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Opinion

Op-Ed: Baby Nancy, the first ‘black’ doll, woke the toy industry

Baby Nancy, Shorty Curls, from Rob Goldberg collection
A 13-inch black doll named Baby Nancy made her American Toy Fair debut, which took place the week of March 2, 1969.
(Hersh Rosner )

This month marks the Barbie doll’s 60th birthday, with a lot of attendant hoopla. Target has launched a commemorative “girl power” collection. New coffee table books trace the doll’s fashion savvy, and Mattel is issuing a new line of birthday Barbies.

Barbie deserves her party, but that celebration has overshadowed another doll anniversary that is arguably more relevant to our cultural moment. Fifty years ago this month, Baby Nancy made her debut at the American Toy Fair. A 13-inch black baby doll, Nancy transformed what was racially acceptable in Toyland.

The revolutionary doll’s manufacturer was a newcomer to the trade: Shindana Toys. Nancy was its maiden doll, a product of the rebirth of Los Angeles after the 1965 Watts rebellion. That October, two months after the riots, Robert Hall and Louis Smith, two black civil rights activists working in Watts, founded Operation Bootstrap Inc. — a not-for-profit community development and job training center dedicated to the Black Power movement.

Bootstrap turned out to be a great success, hailed as a model by the left and the right. Three years after its founding, Smith and Hall were invited to meet with the white leadership of Mattel, the world’s largest toy maker, then-headquartered in Hawthorne. The makers of Barbie admired Bootstrap’s emphasis on economic self-help, and they offered to back a Bootstrap toy business. Mattel would provide capital, industry contacts and suppliers, and training by Mattel personnel.

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Baby Nancy, Pretty Pigtails, from Rob Goldberg collection
Shindana would make dozens of other dolls in the fifteen years that followed, but it only took one to change the doll business forever.
(Hersh Rosner)
If America’s leading toy makers had awakened, it was Baby Nancy’s doing.

The new company took its name from the Swahili word for “competitor.” On Smith’s suggestion, Shindana would specialize in black dolls, aiming to capture a largely untapped market. Barbie power would help fund a radical enterprise: black toys designed, manufactured and marketed by African American toy makers.

But how to do it right, how to make an authentic doll representing African American children? What would make Baby Nancy special was that, unlike prior “colored” or “Negro” commercial dolls, she would not be a white doll “dipped in chocolate,” as Smith put it, with stereotypically Caucasian facial features and hair that had been merely tinted brown.

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As one Shindana worker proudly explained, Baby Nancy “is not a white doll with black skin. She is not a black doll with Negroid features that is unpleasing to look at. She is an authentically beautiful black doll.”

Nancy’s hard vinyl body was brown, like other dolls aimed at her market niche, but her nose, mouth and facial structure were designed to be what some industry observers had started to call “ethnically correct.” And she was the first doll marketed as “black.”

Given the toy industry’s history of racist imagery, a white manufacturer touting its dolls’ “typical” ethnic or racial characteristics would likely have drawn suspicion. But Shindana’s staff felt fully authorized to make such pronouncements. With a few exceptions, the company’s employees — in the front office, in research and design and on the factory floor — were black. In some of its ads, the company played up the racial composition of the workforce, implying that only black toy makers had the cultural know-how to make a truly black doll.

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The way Shindana pioneered Nancy’s hair is particularly notable. The first Baby Nancy dolls had rooted black synthetic hair that may have come from Mattel’s suppliers: long, fine and straight, it was styled into pigtails. By the end of 1969, the company was representing what women were doing at the time: wearing their hair “natural” to buck white beauty norms and show their solidarity with the black liberation struggle. That meant a short, coarse Afro.

This presented a significant challenge. The toy industry had never genuinely attempted to replicate short, natural African American hair before. Shindana imported a special oven from Italy and slid synthetic doll hair under the heat to achieve a crimped, matted texture. The factory line workers used a hair comb to fluff out the natural and give it a more realistic appearance and texture. Now consumers could pass up Pretty Pigtails, the original Nancy doll, for the more politically potent Shorty Curls, which employees called Natural Nancy.

Shindana’s, and Baby Nancy’s, timing could not have been more propitious. The late 1960s were a turning point in the industry. All the major manufacturers, targeting a rising middle class of black Americans who wanted representation at the doll counter as well as the lunch counter, were introducing black dolls. As one white toy executive put it bluntly at the time, “Anyone who’s in dolls has to be aware of Negro dolls. If he’s awake.” Thanks to Shindana, more and more of those dolls would have natural hairstyles and “ethnically correct” facial features.

Shindana was in business for 15 years, making Baby Nancy dolls and adding a diverse collection of other black (and non-black) lines. But Nancy was the groundbreaker. If America’s leading toy makers had awakened, it was Baby Nancy’s doing.

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Rob Goldberg teaches history at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is writing a book on the politics of toys during the 1960s and 1970s.

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