Baton Rouge Traditions

Memoirs of an African American Multicultural Self-Taught Folk Doll Artist

By Barbara Franklin


Begin and never stop using the Gift God gave you.

—Barbara Franklin


God works in mysterious ways. In 1978, when I went on an errand on Decatur Street in the French Quarter, I saw cute black dolls in the souvenir shop windows. Little did I know that it was a blessing for me. I stood and looked and looked at the little black dolls because they were so well made and dressed so cute. Then the thought entered my mind: I can make those. I was determined to become a doll maker and to make such nice, well-made, attractive dolls that they would sell themselves. The money received would help me and my children live a better life in a nice, safe neighborhood. Through the Grace of God I have been able to stay focused and to create and make my cloth dolls, teaching myself to perfect myself more and more with the passage of time.

Barbara Franklin. Photo: James Terry.

I was born in Uptown New Orleans, Louisiana, August 22, 1940 in the half-side of a five-room shotgun double-sided house of my daddy's mother and step-father. I was the youngest and only girl. We lived one block past Napoleon Avenue and one block over from South Claiborne Avenue. On the four-block square where we lived, our neighbors were light-skin and dark-skin black people, French people, Italian people, Jewish people, and mulatto. Some were professionals: doctors, dentists, store owners, school teachers, and postal workers.

Cloth dolls by Barbara Franklin. Photo James Terry.

Nonetheless, if the color of your skin was dark brown, it made getting a decent job next to impossible. The census of 1940 states that for black people it was a labor job for men and domestic servant for women. In my family that description held true because my Grandma Walker, a very pretty pecan skin tone, was a domestic worker and cook for a very wealthy white family who owned a furniture store. Her husband, my Grampa Bolden, who was dark brown skin, worked as a laborer for New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board. They both were very happy and proud workers and the proof was the very nice house they were providing for us to live in. My daddy, because of his dark brown skin, had a hard time finding a job.

One day we went to live with Big Momma in her three-room house in Mid City about fifteen miles from Grandma Walker and Daddy's house. Big Momma's two rooms and a kitchen house was clean and comfortable and she was kind, loving, and understanding and accepted us with open arms.

Row of dolls. Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Franklin.

Momma got a job as a short order cook and a sandwich maker at a corner bar. She worked in the evening so Big Momma could keep us. Big Momma was tan skin color and she worked at Cloverland Dairy where all kinds of dairy products were made and sold to businesses.

Momma and Big Momma lived in peace and respect. They both understood their roles. Momma took care of us, such as washing and keeping our clothes clean, keeping the house clean, seeing to my hair being neat and combed at all time.

Momma Took Care of My Hair

A girl's hairstyle was a cultural thing when I was growing up in New Orleans and was combed with her age in mind. It was a no-no to comb a girl's hair that made her look older than she was. It was said if you comb a girl's hair to make her look older than she was, she will become womanish and attract boy's attention to her too early. If a child's hair was short and the parent did not grease and part it into small plaits, your hair would be wild and not neat.

I was born with dark brown skin with thick short hair that was thin around the edges. Momma was expert at–and took no nonsense about–my hair. She would wash my hair with shampoo, rinse it twice, towel dry, grease my scalp, and comb my hair out and then begin plaiting small plaits all over my head. I just hated the way she combed my hair, and I would be so feeling hurt with tears in my eyes because I did not like or want those small plaits. It made no difference to her. She would tell me my hair was too short for big plaits, which meant less plaits. And by plaiting my hair into small plaits, she was helping my hair to grow. She would also plait small baby plaits around the edge of my head for the baby plaits to grow. As my hair grew, my momma started plaiting my hair into larger plaits such as four plaits by parting my hair down the middle, then across the top of my head from ear to ear. She would tie a ribbon on each plait.

Dolls by Barbara Franklin. Photo James Terry.

The next hairstyle was three plaits, which was more pleasing to me because the hair was divided by parting it from one side of the ear to the other side, letting the front hair be one large plait. Then she divided the back hair into two parts and plait each side to form two plaits. Ribbons were tied on each plait that matched the color of your dress. My overall favorite little-girl-growing-up-hair-style was the two plaits worn for dress up and going to church on Sunday. My hair was parted down the middle to form two sections of hair that was combed, brushed, and plaited to form two plaits that was pinned in place and decorated with either two bows on each side or one large bow in the center of the plait.

When I was ten years old, my momma started bringing me to the beauty parlor for her beautician to wash my hair and place me under the dryer. They used to say run a warm hot comb through my hair because it made my hair more manageable for my momma to comb it. The only time preteen black girls in my neighborhood got their hair straightened with a real hot comb was for special occasions, such as Easter Sunday, being in a wedding, or first Holy Communion. The hot comb was used to straighten thick hair and style it into the curly Shirley Temple curls.

It was years later before I made the connection with the plaits my momma plaited my hair with and the Pickaninny doll hairstyle and I thought to myself that was a hairstyle of loving and caring. I was wearing the short plaited hairstyle when I attended Thomy Lafon Elementary School in New Orleans.

Learning to Embroider and Sew

I remember walking to school with my brother and being very happy to be at school because the teacher truly taught us lessons by demonstration on the chalkboard that we copied and completed at our seats and handed in for the teacher to correct. I went to school each day eager to learn. I expected the teacher to teach me and I paid attention and got my lessons.

It is a true saying that we cannot look into the future. I did not know what the future had in store for me. I would never have been able to imagine what being in my first grade home economics class room in Thorny Lafon Elementary School in New Orleans, LA, would do for me. It was my starting point, the reason that I learned to work with my hands and later, use them in such a productive way. In that first grade classroom was where I experienced peace, pleasure, learning, and happiness.

Later Mrs. Lascit, my home economics teacher, taught our class how to bake cupcakes and how to fringe a place mat. She would sew a square seam on the place mat and show us how to use a needle and make the bottom part into fringes. That was fun and exciting.

Doll. Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Franklin.

The next lesson was the one with the future gift for me: transferring objects such as puppies, kitties, ducks, rabbits, and different flowers onto muslin fabric with a warm heated iron. We were taught how to use two embroidery hoops to hold the fabric tightly in place. There were lots of different colored embroidery thread just like crayon colors. Mrs. Lascit showed us how to cut and separate our embroidery thread into three strands and the length she wanted us to begin with was twenty inches long. We had several practice classes showing us how to practice placing our muslin between the embroidery hoops and slowly following the object. We were allowed to bring our projects home on the weekend to practice or finish a design we did not finish in class. I immediately fell in love with embroidering. I taught myself how to iron designs on muslin squares. With the help of my grandmother, Big Momma, I would embroider. My favorite object was flowers. Momma would give me spending money and off I went to the dry goods store that sold every type of appliance from A to Z, including fabrics, sewing supplies, such as embroidery hoops, needles, scissors, and an ever larger assortment of colored embroidery thread. I always bought a color I did not have. I taught myself all the embroidery stitches such as cross stitch, satin stitch, straight stitch, chain stitch, and the circular stitch.

My Young Adult Years

My mother arranged my marriage to a young man seven years older than I was. In those days, it was not uncommon for a parent to marry a daughter off at a very young age. I was married at thirteen years of age, and my first child, a girl, was born shortly after I turned fourteen. The next year a boy, my son, was born. They were one year and four days apart. I asked to be freed from marriage. My husband pleaded with me to change my mind, but I did not. I was too emotionally young and immature to understand what being married meant.

Between my first and second marriage, I worked as a domestic worker, house cleaner, laundress, babysitter, and cook sometimes. The Holy Spirit visited me once while I was ironing in a lady's house. Holy Spirit said that I needed to go back to school and further my education so that when I get too old to work, I will be able to help myself. I listened to the message from the Holy Spirit and it turned out to be a true message–every word of it.

Years later, I met a man when I was older and more mature and ready to be married. I went to school during my second marriage and received my high school equivalency diploma not realizing how valuable it would be to me. I was able to use it to enter Xavier University in 1970 with my tuition being paid for as the wife of a 100% Honorably Discharged Disabled American Veteran. I majored in early childhood education.

College and children were difficult and challenging as was learning to make dolls in the beginning, but with the Grace of God I succeeded and I did pass my National Teacher's Examination the very first time in 1977. I have always throughout my life felt responsible for helping myself because what you can – through the Grace of God – do for yourself, no one can take it from you.

I had my share of personal obstacles, needing extra income as a single parent. I made and sold popcorn balls, candied apples, fudge, even different flavored frozen cups. I stopped because it was not enjoyable, hard work, and time consuming making such products daily. Then, never forgetting to put the welfare of my children first, I discovered making dolls.

Getting Started Making Dolls

I was so determined to make those dolls I saw in 1978 that I went rushing to the TG&Y variety store a short distance from my house. I went to the pattern counter and looked through the pattern books and saw various doll patterns, but when I saw the Raggedy Ann and Andy pattern with the different sizes, I chose it because I could make my favorite size, which was twenty inches.

Barbara Franklin with one of her larger dolls. Photo Maida Owens.

I went home with my doll making supplies and once my house work and family needs were all completed, I started my doll making. At the same time, I was asking myself how I was going to make a living selling my dolls. That frightening thought did not stop me because I developed an attitude of sink or swim. Without realizing it that attitude and, God on my side, kept me going forward.

I had no idea that learning to embroider as a girl would be a big help to me when making my doll faces. I also made some dresses for my two daughters and my own clothes by hand, never stopping until the items were complete. That attitude stayed with me to this day. When I was able to afford to buy a portable Singer sewing machine, I had to learn how to sew on the sewing machine because I was so used to sewing by hand. It was also an added blessing for me that I had taught myself how to use a sewing machine, because most doll creating is stuffing, creating faces, and hairstyles. The sewing machine is useful for sewing body parts.

I started out embroidering my doll faces, but because of the time it took to complete each face, I started painting my dolls faces on the fabrics.

My First Dolls

The reason I am self-taught is because I had no extra time or money to leave home and go to a doll making class. I just relied on what I was learning and perfecting each skill. I did not have time to start out as a fancy doll maker making individual fingers and toes, so I made dolls that were easy for me to assemble and clothe. I made sure that the dolls were firmly stitched when I joined their joints together and the fabrics for their bodies and clothing were of the very best brand name fabrics. I selected colorful ginghams and calico designs that coordinated with the sizes of my dolls. I never made any of my dolls out of old fabrics. I did not realize at the time I began making my dolls how much I was intent on creating a successful saleable product.

Dolls ready to be finished. Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Franklin.

I did not allow myself to be careless and wasteful as I cut fabrics and trained myself to use my sewing machine. Of course I was very insecure, but as I sewed the doll's body parts, trimmed them, and turned them over to stuff each part with fiberfill, I started to see a doll body forming and became excited to complete a doll.

My favorite size doll pattern was the twenty inch size because it was not too large or too small. Making the doll's body was not as difficult for me in the beginning as creating the face and the hairstyles. I used my knowledge of embroidery I learned in my elementary school classroom to create my doll's face. That took a lot of time, but I was only embroidering the eyes, nose, and mouth. The face included a satin stitch for the round eyes, chain stitch for mouth and eyebrows, and satin stitch or round dots for nose.

The hair was more difficult and that was very important to the entire doll. I was more comfortable creating faces on my dolls in the beginning because I had that skill, but I had to teach myself how to use rug yarn to make attractive hairstyles for my dolls.

Choosing Hairstyles for My Dolls

I really did think seriously about the types of hairstyle I would use on my doll's heads. I wanted my dolls to look like typical younger girls and not preteens or teenagers. The main styles were the Pickaninny and cornrow. To create the cornrow style, I read the length size from the Raggedy Ann pattern and the amount, or number of strains of rug yarn to use to make one long plait. I cut many strings of 36 inches long rug yarns and separated them into six strings then knotted the six strings together at the top only. I would make a dozen or more of them, then combine six of them to form one plait. The next step was plaiting the combined six strands, which was a challenge to learn to do. The plait must be firm and neat.

Three dolls. Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Franklin.

The next hairstyle that I developed–the Pickaninny doll's hair style–also used the same thirty-six inch long, six strands of embroidery threads knotted into six. You repeat the same steps until you have a dozen or more. I had to have the flexibility in my fingers to cut them into small sections that become the small plaits for the Pickaninny doll's hairstyle. That was quite a challenge to teach myself to do. Self-determination won, though.

Years later when I added white dolls, their hairstyles were curls or ponytails. Because the unbleached muslin fabric was light colored, I used shades of black, brown, yellow, or red yarn to create their hairstyle which enhanced their cute faces. I also added freckles on their cheeks and different colored pupils in the white felt circles to form their eyes. Many times after I finished making my dolls, they were so well made, so attractive, it seemed unreal to me that I made it all by myself.

Dolls to Play With

I created dolls for children to play with and be comfortable handling. I fell in love with gingham fabric and there were many shades to choose from: orange, red, blue, navy blue, yellow, and green. Gingham is checkered fabric that the solids mixed with solid white to form the checkered board pattern in large, medium, and small fabric sizes. Calicos were fabrics of solid background colors with all sorts of designs on the solids–just a delight and excellent for children and doll clothing. I never got my fill of buying gingham and calico fabrics to dress my dolls. I used trimmings of lace, rickrack, and eyelet to enhance the already colorful doll dresses. All my dolls wore shoes and socks because as a little girl, I was never allowed to go barefoot, so all my dolls are completely dressed. White panties complete their wardrobe. I sewed my dolls' dresses at the back so that the dress could not be removed too soon. I like my dolls to be a close companion—pretty and completely dressed at all times.

The Mammy Doll

In those days, most of the sales in the French Market were from tourists who had heard about the colorful black dolls, especially the Mammy and Pickaninny. I learned as a black cloth doll maker that there were places that the white tourists came from that had no black dolls. That is why the black dolls sold so well in the French Quarter and that included the ones I made.

Barbara Franklin with Mammy dolls. Photo Maida Owens.

I was able to create a Mammy and Pickaninny doll product that was not offensive. I made their faces to show a sweet innocence. My dolls' features were not unpleasant to criticize or laugh at.

I had no problem making a Mammy doll because the Mammy was the highest female plantation servant. She was trusted to cook and serve meals to the plantation owner and his family. She was a person the plantation confided in. She took care of the plantation owner's children. No other servant held a higher position than the Mammy, and, of course, she was shown to be above any other servant because of the work uniform she wore: a long solid color plain dress covered with a white long pinafore apron and a white handkerchief.

The Mammy dolls' outfits were usually a solid red dress or a red-and-white gingham check dress with a long white pinafore style apron. The outfit would be completed with gold earrings in each ear. The handkerchief was tied to cover her entire head mostly to keep food safe from hair falling into the food during cooking or dishing up food to be served at meal times. If there was a death in the family, the red dress or the red and white gingham fabric would be replaced with black, navy blue, or gray.

The Pickaninny Doll

The Pickaninny doll is one of the most historically significant dolls to be created. It definitely resembles little slave girls running and playing on the grounds of a plantation with her short thick hair combed in many small plaits covering her head. When the Pickaninny doll was created with the same kind of plaits, it was made from black rags or thick black cord until black rug yarn came into existence. The person who was creating the doll as a saleable product made it more saleable by trying colorful strips of cloth on the plaits and drawing the Pickaninny doll in colorful outfits. Red was the most popular, but also red and white gingham, red and white polka dots and red and black handkerchief print. The Pickaninny doll became one of the bestselling dolls in the South, especially in New Orleans French Quarter souvenir shops.

Barbara Franklin shows how she assembles a doll. Photo Maida Owens.

Black fabric was the original fabric used to make all black dolls. The Pickaninny doll I was making in the beginning was made using black fabric, white circles with black half-moon eyes, red dots for the nose, and a half circle forming a smile for the mouth. I sewed three-inch long, small plaits all over her head and made her dress from red and white calico or gingham or red and white polka dots with red shoes and white or red panties. I tied red rug yarn to her plaits and she was a sensation and sold very well.

I started making the Pickaninny dolls using brown fabric the same way I made the Pickaninny using black fabric, the only difference with the brown fabric is that I used black dots for the nose and black half circle for the mouth—everything else was the same, even the shoes, which could be red, maroon, or black.

Dolls with cornrow hairstyles were made and dressed the same, just with a larger selection of different colored fabrics. The only difference was the doll's hairstyle, which was made by sewing long plaits called braids the length of her head and sewn all over and tied with ribbons on the end of each braid. And then I put one ribbon centered on top of her head.

Facing Challenges, Being Disciplined

There were many lonely, isolated hours making dolls. It would have been so easy to stop and get up from the sewing machine, but I never allowed myself to do such a thing. To cope, I listened to music. All types of music: Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, Gospel music, Zydeco music, music, music, music, music of all races. I taught myself not to focus on the TV because my eyes needed to be focused on my sewing machine and fabrics. I was able to discipline myself, reminding myself that making my dolls was a stay-at-home job, if I wanted a salary I had to treat my sewing at home seriously. I had no overseer over me so I became my own overseer. So I was able to work at home and be available to my children, and not have to worry about asking someone to watch them. I have my grandmother, my Big Momma, to thank for sowing that seed into me. I wanted to find a way to earn a living at home and be there for my children. She told me one day kindly, firmly, and matter-of-factly that she had helped my mother raise my two brothers and me. She was now tired and through, and I was going to have to raise my children myself. I understood and loved her too much to get angry at her, but perhaps that is why it was always a thought in my mind about finding a way to make a living and be there for my children. God solved my problem in 1978 when I saw those dolls in the French Quarter that day.

Selling My First Dolls

At the end of 1978 and beginning of 1979, the day finally came when I had a group of dolls I had finished making. I was told to bring my dolls and find a parking space behind the Main Post Office on Loyola Avenue near the back entrance so that when the postal workers were coming out the door on their lunch break, they would see my dolls and want to buy a doll or some dolls from me. I put my dolls in the back of my station wagon and did what was suggested to me, but most of the postal workers hurried past me on their way to get their lunch. But there was one young lady who understood my intentions and needs. She told me how nice my dolls were and that I should take them to the French Market Community Flea Market where they rent booths to people who sell handmade merchandise. Tourists from all over the world visit and browse through the market. I could sell my dolls there.

I met the tall portly blond white man with a long white beard whose name was Mike Stark. He was director of the craft vendors and was very pleased when he saw my dolls. I was given permission to sell my dolls and he told me that because I made my dolls I would have priority space on the main aisle and could park my car right behind my space. Hearing those words was such a big, big blessing because I no longer had to worry about a place to find in order to earn money from the sale of my dolls. In 1978-79 I was the first black lady to purchase a space to sell handmade dolls.

All I had to do now was get busy, busy making them. Everything went well right from the start. The dolls sold each time I set up at my space. Because I used the best materials to make and dress my dolls, they sold themselves.

I named my dolls plain, ordinary, sensible names like my female classmates were named in the 1940s–names such as Bernice, Hannah, Rebecca, Pearlie, Henriette, Sally, Dorothy, Clara, Hattie Mae, Lille, Betty. I would feel so blessed when a customer would come to my counter, look at my dolls for a while, pick one up, and say to me, "I want to buy Pearlie." She might add that her daughter has that name. I would sign my initials, the date, and also the city.

Expanding My Business

Many unexpected opportunities happened to me while I was selling my dolls from my stand in the French Market. Some of the local French Quarter shop owners would browse through the flea market looking at the vendors' merchandise. Handmade dolls were so popular during the late 1970s and 80s that they would purchase a few dolls from my stand and order more which was telling me my dolls were a saleable product. I was able to not only pay my rent for my space, but also buy more materials to keep my doll business growing. If I had been a copy doll maker and had not developed my own unique doll making style, my doll making business could have failed from the start. In spite of all the dolls being sold in the various souvenir shops in the French Quarter, I was able to sell my dolls to some of the local shop owners, which taught me that a well handmade cloth doll will sell.

Barbara Franklin's craft show booth. Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Franklin.

I was invited to participate in the folklife section of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Ifama Arsan, who directed the Jazz Fest folklife area, came through the handcraft section of the flea market looking for handcrafters. She invited me to demonstrate making doll making skills and be interviewed onstage about how I learned how to make my dolls. I participated in the folklife area for several years and later sold in Congo Square Market Place and Contemporary Crafts Market.

I have participated in several other festivals across Louisiana and in the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge's Arts Market which is held the first Saturday of each month. I have been a member of a Black doll club named Holiday Festival of Black Dolls. This connection led me to a doll show of black doll makers in Topeka, Kansas. There I met the Black Beauty Doll Club from Oakland, California and some years later, I participated in one of their annual exhibits and sales.

Barbara Franklin leads a doll making workshop at a library in Baton Rouge. Photo James Terry.

Momma Alma Watkins, creator and organizer of The Celebration of the African American Child in 1989, asked me to teach the little children how to make my little cloth dolls. Since then, I have conducted "Make It and Take Rag Doll Workshops" in both Congo Square and the African Village in JazzFest. I have conducted a doll making workshop for children at the Ogden Museum of Art in New Orleans. I also made some Clementine Hunter look alike dolls for their gift shop. I conducted "Make It and Take It" rag doll workshops at every library in New Orleans and most Baton Rouge public libraries. I also conducted workshops for Orleans Parish School teachers and after school programs.

Another Opportunity and Challenge

My next major opportunity was leaving the French Market Community Flea Market. Around 1987, I moved into an upscale shopping place in the Millhouse of the Jackson Brewery Market Place on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. It contained several floors of all size vendor spaces. My vendor space was named Barbara's Handmade Dolls and Crafts and consisted of a large counter with large wide shelves to display my dolls. My dolls being so colorful drew customers to them. I met a lot of wonderful people and sold many dolls because the Millhouse hours were ten in the morning until sometimes nine or ten at night.

Doll, 2015. Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Franklin.

By this time, I had been devoted to sewing dolls for a regular steady, nonstop time for quite a many years. I became concerned about my sons because they had high school student interests such as sports and school band. I hired several distributive education students to work in the evening until closing time which allowed me to go home for my sons.

One day I was at my doll counter shop and the Holy Spirit said to me, "Barbara, it is time to close your shop and return back to teaching school so you can be at home now that your boys are in high school and your teaching salary will be certain. You will be home on weekends and holidays." I closed my counter in late 1980 so that I would be able be at home for my sons. I know it was the right decision.

I continued doing what I love: teaching young people how to learn to be life-long learners and making my dolls in my free time to participate sometimes in local fairs, library exhibits and dolls shows. I was teaching at the time Hurricane Katrina arrived in New Orleans, August 28, 2005. I now live in Baton Rouge and participate in Arts Council programs such as the monthly Art Market and after school programs.


At this time in my life, I can truly say I am an evolutionary, self-taught doll artist. Since I want each doll to connect with the person, my dolls have changed over time as my growing audience changed. When I first started making dolls, they were made out of black fabric. Then I introduced brown fabric to my dolls back in the early 1980s. Today, I use black fabric, brown fabric, café au lait, a Creole doll, and also unbleached muslin for a white doll.

One of Barbara's advertising stragies. A bus bench on Independence Blvd. in Baton Rouge.Photo: Courtesy of Barbara Franklin.

I started making the white dolls after I went to a doll exhibit and sale and the various participants wanted white dolls because their little grandchildren were white and they didn't necessarily want a chocolate doll. So then I had to tell myself that if I am going to make dolls, I need to make them of all colors to please everybody. When I first started making dolls, I referred to myself as "Barbara W. Franklin, African American Doll Artist." Now I refer to myself as "Barbara W. Franklin, African American Multicultural Folk Doll Artist" since I make dolls of all different cultures. I have and still make my dolls in all colors: black, brown, beige, tan, and unbleached or white muslin to please this cultural generation.

Commemoriative dolls presented as gifts

I have truly been made happier than I can say. Much more blessed meeting so many appreciate people. My praises and thanks to God Almighty.

Barbara Franklin first learned to work with her hands as a little girl in New Orleans. With an early childhood education degree from Xavier University, she taught school. She built a business making dolls that was able to support her family. In 2005 she relocated to Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina where she continues to make dolls, give workshops, and exhibit her dolls. This article was first published in the 2017 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. It excerpts sections from her self-published booklet, My Story as an African American, Multicultural, Self-Taught Folk Doll Artist.