For northeast Native American, enslaved African American, and early American pioneer children, corn husk dolls were common toys. Corn husks were easily accessible during the early 19th century, and the dolls were fairly easy to construct.
Northeast Native Americans made their corn husk dolls without faces. A Seneca craftswoman, Mrs. Snow, explains why: Corn, one of the “Three Sisters,” along with Beans and Squash, wanted to do something other than make salt boxes, moccasins, and mats. Corn asked the Great Spirit for permission, and her wish was granted. So, Corn created little people out of corn husks to roam the Earth and bring brotherhood and contentment to the Iroquois tribe. However, Corn made a very beautiful corn husk person— so beautiful that when she caught her own reflection in a pool of water, she realized how beautiful she was and became very vain and self-absorbed. Her actions began to make people unhappy, and the Great Spirit gave her a warning. When she did not comply with the Great Spirits warning, the Great Spirit sent a messenger to tell her that her punishment was to be without a face, to be unable to talk to the Seneca peoples or the animals, and to roam the Earth forever looking for something to do until she was able to get her face back again. And that is why Native American corn husk dolls have no faces.
Enslaved African American children were able to make corn husk dolls out of the husks their parents collected after harvesting the fields during the harvesting season.
During the early 19th century, American pioneer children adopted corn husk doll making from the northeast Native Americans and brought their corn husk dolls with them from the East Coast when they journeyed to the West with their families.
Corn husk dolls were also used in healing ceremonies, to ward off evil dream spirits, and as a charm to protect the home, crops, and livestock.
This corn husk doll (LAHM# 2017.012.107) is made from corn husk with possible corn husk hair as the doll’s hair. This doll has a face, so it is likely an iteration of a Native American corn husk doll that possibly belonged to an American pioneer child.
A part of the Barbara Lindsey International Doll Collection, this doll is on exhibit at the Museum as part of our new changing exhibit called Her Side of the Story: Tales of California Pioneer Women, on view until July 23, 2023. More of the Barbara Lindsey International Doll Collection is part of the new Permanent Exhibit, Making Connections: Stories from the Land, in the Geschke Gallery on the second floor.
Contributed by Sophia Abarca, Curator of Collections