Terri Lee - Born in the Heartland

By Nancy Goldstein




Nancy Goldstein (L) and her sister Norma Krueger in 1998 with their Terri Lees that Santa gave them in 1951.

If the story of the Terri Lee doll were written as a novel, it would be found on the bookshelf alongside those family dynasty books that portray generations. For the post-war creation of the Terri Lee family of dolls mirrors some of the life of a real family which continues to this day. Indeed, children who played with their Terri Lees in the '40s and '50s, as well as adults who passionately collect the dolls now, have felt themselves drawn into the "family" and the ongoing story of Terri Lee. As family histories will do, our story weaves between people, events, and time frames, overlapping at times, backtracking at times, but following a chronological progression through today, and the future.

The doll was born in the heartland--Lincoln, Nebraska--an idea of Violet Lee Gradwohl, the matriarch of our story. Vi, a mother and dentist's wife, had a restless and entrepreneurial nature that bounded beyond the limits of her middle class life. She convinced her niece, Maxine Runci (Stevens), a talented artist, to perfect a doll which Maxine had already sculpted. The 16" doll, with painted dimpled face, large eyes, and chubby toddler body, was modeled after Maxine's daughter, Drienne, an adorable 4-year-old. Vi's own daughter Harriet had nicknamed herself "Terri." Put together with "Lee," Vi's maiden name, it seemed perfect to call the doll "Terri Lee." Vi had seen in children's play the need for a doll, which would spark the imaginations of active children of the 1940s. They needed a doll that could be dressed in limitless fashions, whose hair could be brushed and styled, a doll that could attend a formal tea party as well as go into the swimming pool or be taken on a family motor trip.

The first Terri Lees were made in 1946 of composition materials. (Interestingly, 1946 is also considered the first year of the post-war baby boom!) Composition dolls are marked "TERRI LEE" "PAT. PENDING" in raised letters on their upper backs, and they have the stiff, wiry "mannequin" wig. Composition Terri Lees in excellent condition are quite rare and are coveted by collectors. But the composition material of sawdust or ground corn failed to meet Vi's standard of durability, and soon she was experimenting, sometimes in her kitchen, with a new material called plastic.

By 1948 a plastic Terri Lee doll was rolling out of the molds in Vi's Nebraska factory, although in sometimes unlikely colors which had to be painted to achieve the desired flesh tone. This era of early plastic dolls also bears the mark on the back, "TERRI LEE" "PAT. PENDING," and Terri Lee collectors call them "painted plastics." They almost always have the mannequin wig. Of course the faces on all Terri Lee dolls were always hand painted, and "painted plastic" refers to body paint which renders flesh color.

Soon the flesh tone was blended into the plastic, eliminating the need for body painting, but since the plastic formulas were still in patent application process, non-painted dolls, "hard plastics," from 1950-1952 continued to be marked "TERRI LEE" "PAT. PENDING." On these, the wigs are a soft, shiny material, "Raysheen." When the patent was granted in 1952, "PAT. PENDING" disappeared from the mark, with only "TERRI LEE" now on her back. Indeed, composition, painted plastic patent pendings, and hard plastic patent pendings appear similar to the novice collector who often needs the help of someone more experienced to identify the correct era. Early dolls feel heavier than later ones, but determining the age of the doll by weight alone can be a misleading guide. Though later baby dolls were made of vinyl, a vinyl 16" Terri Lee was made only briefly, and most Terri Lee dolls are considered to be in the hard plastic collectible category.

Wigs that could be shampooed and curled were an important part of the Terri Lee concept. Vi recruited her own hairdresser, Ben H. Myers, who had the creative energy and willingness to mobilize his staff in an after-hours cottage industry, providing the factory with doll wigs. Over the years, wig material evolved from mannequin to Raysheen, and an even finer and softer material, Swiss Fiber; in between, Vi experimented with a soft, shiny fiber, Saran.

Fashions were a hallmark of the Terri Lee story, and Vi's insistence on the finest design, materials and workmanship help make them some of the most durable and desirable today. Children could dress their Terris in everything from complete bathing outfits to formal gowns and even a mink coat. In the early years, costumes were made as a cottage industry by skilled housewives supplementing the family income. Tags first appeared as "Terri Lee" printed in blue on a satin ribbon, and the earliest, "loopy tags," have distinctive curls in the lettering. Later tags were also printed but not loopy, and finally the Terri Lee name was embroidered onto the tag.

Vi added to the Terri Lee family over the years. Terri's "adopted brother," Jerri Lee, made from the same mold as Terri Lee, has many outfits matching hers. Jerri's wigs add special personality to the individual dolls. One of the most prized wigs for the collector is caracul, the short, tightly curled--or feathery curled--fur made from skin of young sheep.

Connie Lynn and Linda Baby are baby dolls bearing the names and likenesses of real children in the Gradwohl family. Tiny Terri and Tiny Jerri, 10" walker dolls with sleep eyes, came along in the mid-1950s. So Sleepy and Little CoCo were hand-size baby dolls of limited production.

Vi was ahead of her time in promoting diversity in dolls, and in the late '40s produced the black doll Patty-Jo. She was made from the same 16" Terri Lee mold, with her distinctive face painting designed by Jackie Ormes, a well-known black artist. Patty-Jo is marked "PAT. PENDING," and has a mannequin wig pulled back in two low pony tails. Other dolls of color include black Bonnie Lou who sometimes has a mannequin wig, Benjie who is also black, Guadalupe, an Hispanic doll, and Nanook, an Eskimo, all from the original Terri Lee mold. Vi's one celebrity doll, the Gene Autry, made from the same 16" mold, flopped with 1950s children, but is treasured today by collectors.

Beautiful color catalogs, like the "Fashion Parade," "Friendship Club," and "Monthly Magazine" publications, kept the family of children and the Terri Lee enterprise connected. Tags, boxes, and costume packaging were created with care. Accessories such as the Deluxe Wardrobe Chest were expensive dream-wish material for most children, but other items, such as the Hair Dress Kit, were within reach of many. Children could mail their damaged dolls to the Terri Lee Doll Hospital for repair or a new wig. Terri Lee herself designed fashions and helped promote the doll in nationwide personal appearances.

Vi formed alliances with Girl Scouts, Little Lady products, Peter Pan Peanut Butter, and the Heart Fund Campaign, expanding her national showcase. She coordinated some of the prints on Terri and Jerri costumes to match Steiff animals, adding tiny stuffed monkeys, poodles and Scotties to her line.

In 1952, after a mysterious and devastating fire at the Lincoln factory, Vi moved the business and her family to Apple Valley, California, a desert community east of Los Angeles. Family members, including Terri Lee, worked in the business, but for a few there was estrangement resulting from Vi's determined success.

A propensity for legal entanglements and racehorses distracted Vi and her business began to fail. Another factory fire, this time in 1958, was the final blow, and her properties were auctioned off in 1960. Over the next few years, she leased molds to such companies as Magna, Mar-Fan and I&S Industries; the dolls made in these Los Angeles area factories are usually lumped together and called "Mar-Fan Terri Lee" by collectors. In response to the trend of talking dolls, Mar-Fan installed a speaker into the head of some of its Terri Lees and marketed Terri Lee phonographs and records. Though they frequently have sweet, winsome faces, the Los Angeles era dolls and costumes sometimes lack the quality control, which Vi had provided. Squabbling between vendors and the absence of Vi's watchful eye sapped production, effectively ending the production of Terri Lee dolls in 1962.

Baby boomers who still have their Terri Lees, those who wish they had one as a child, and people newly attracted to the doll have taken up Terri Lee collecting and joined the family story. Some collectors have one or two Terris in their general doll collection, while others might have 50 or even hundreds, along with extra costumes, catalogs, boxes, and furniture. There are two Terri Lee interest newsletters, The Daisy Chain and Love of a Lifetime, each publisher sponsoring an annual convention. The United Federation of Doll Clubs (UFDC) offers Terri Lee slide show presentations for member clubs. Several Terri Lee interest websites exist and the Terri Lee site on eBay auctions is "hot." (See links on this site's homepage.)

Sadly, Terri Lee Schrepel, the namesake of the doll, passed away in the fall of 1998, never to see a reproduction of her mother's creation. But in that same year, Vi's family--"Terri Lee Associates L.L.C."--prevailed in a lawsuit concerning the doll molds and name. To commemorate the Terri Lee doll's 50th anniversary, Knickerbocker Toy Co., in partnership with Terri Lee Associates, will present a reproduction Terri Lee doll at the February 1999 Toy Fair in New York. The Terri Lee family saga should endure for generations to come, as will the beautiful doll loved by so many.

Nancy Goldstein
Ann Arbor Doll Collectors Club
January 1999

With grateful acknowledgement to Pat Rather for her assistance in clearing up a few details!

References:

Bukowski, Terry and Rather, Pat. "Terri Lee DATE LINE." Alamogordo, New Mexico: The Daisy Chain,1997.

Casper, Peggy Wiedman. Fashionable Terri Lee Dolls. Cumberland, Maryland: Hobby House Press,1988.

Hencey, Naomi. Terri Lee from the 40s to the 60s. Battle Creek, Michigan: November House, Inc., 1984.

Copyright protected. Please write to Nancy Goldstein, 408 Second St., Ann Arbor, MI 48103, for permission to use.

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