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Paper doll rescue: Local woman preserves childhood paper doll collection

Holly Viers • Jul 18, 2017 at 12:32 PM

KINGSPORT – Since she was a little girl, Mary Sewell has always loved paper dolls.

This lifelong love has led Sewell to preserve her dolls in a framed collection, which she hopes to share with others.

“They were very important to a happy little girl, and now they still make me happy,” Sewell said, “but they need to make other people happy, too.”

Sewell said she began collecting paper dolls as a young girl living in Arkansas. She recalls many trips to Ben Franklin, which she then referred to as “The Dime Store,” to buy new books of paper dolls for 10 cents apiece.

She, her sister and her female cousins would then spend the day cutting out the dolls and playing with them.

“A lot of times in the winter, we would pile up on the bed and play all day,” Sewell said, “and in the summer, we’d go to the front porch or to my grandmother’s (to play).”

Sewell said she and her playmates were particularly fascinated by the celebrity paper dolls, such as Elizabeth Taylor, June Allyson and Esther Williams.

“The glamour of the movie stars… I think that was something we couldn’t imagine, like the lifestyle, the clothes, the furs, the shoulder pads and hats with the big feathers,” Sewell said. “So I’d say movie stars are my favorites.”

As one of the youngest girls in her family, Sewell received her sister’s and cousins’ paper dolls as they grew out of them, and she has kept them ever since. From celebrities to babies to theatrical productions, Sewell’s collection features many staples of 1940s and 50s culture.

Sewell framed her first paper doll set, “Gone with the Wind,” nearly 30 years ago. After treasuring it for many years, Sewell decided last winter to frame the rest of her paper dolls.

“It was interesting that I bought so many at Ben Franklin, and now I’m taking them to Ben Franklin in Kingsport to finish the back of the frames,” Sewell said. “I get the frames to a certain point, and then they put the hangers and the paper on the back to finish them nicely.”

She now has between 45 and 50 framed paper dolls, with a few others that have yet to be framed.

“This basically started when I realized that if I didn’t make these paper dolls important, they would end up in the dumpster,” Sewell said. “So I thought by framing them, it would give them some importance.”

Though she has sold and donated a few of them, Sewell hopes to keep most of her framed paper dolls together as a collection that can be displayed publically.

“I would love it if the library or some public building would want to show them as a collection,” Sewell said. “Everybody keeps saying, ‘You’ve got to share them. You’ve got to show them.’”

If she is unable to keep them together, Sewell said she is open to splitting them up among different entities in the community, such as theatres or nurseries.

Sewell said framing her dolls has given her the chance to get in touch with the little girl that is still inside her.

“They’ve just brought me a lot of joy,” Sewell said, “and I think they may have rescued me as well as me rescuing them.”

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