August, 1832. One can imagine the soft smiles and joyous tears as a healthy baby girl was born to Jane and Corban Blackford on the family farm near what is now Bardane, West Virginia. But who was the child and what is her connection to an 1830s-era doll recently acquired by the Historic Shepherdstown Museum?
A note that accompanied the doll, written by Hugh S. Moler, a descendant, indicates the following:
“Great Grand Mother’s cousin William Anderson was going west to make his fortune and gave this doll to James [although it could have been Janie] Jackson Blackford for Virginia (not 100 percent sure of that name) Hellen Blackford in the year 1832.”
Virginia Helen Blackford was a daughter, mother and wife who lived a long 83 years of life. Her parents were Corban Blackford (1792-1841) and Jane Jackson Blackford (1802-1856).
Jane (Jackson) Blackford migrated to the United States at age 14 from Ireland with help from members of the Jackson family. In particular, she was assisted by her uncle, a Presbyterian minister named Anderson, whose mother was a Jackson. That made Jane a cousin of the seventh President of the United States, Andrew Jackson.
Jane originally settled in Baltimore but eventually she met Corban Blackford. They were married at Corban Blackford’s family home Ferry Hill, the home in Washington County, Maryland, that overlooks the Potomac River on the border of Shepherdstown and Sharpsburg. After their marriage, they moved to the farm in Bardane and raised five children, one of them being Virginia.
“There were a number of reasons why the Historic Shepherdstown Museum was interested in acquiring this doll,” said Donna Bertazzoni, president of the Historic Shepherdstown Commission Board of Directors. “First, it is a well-preserved example of an 1830s doll. But more important is the fact that the Museum already owns a sampler made by Virginia Helen Blackford. The doll is a wonderful complement to the sampler.”
Eleanor Lakin, a doll expert and retired architect, examined the doll before it was purchased by the museum. Lakin determined that the doll was from the early 1830s and had been imported from Germany. Germany was one of the world’s largest toy manufacturers during the 19th century. “Well, we really didn’t have much in doll manufacturing in America,” Lakin said. “Most dolls and toys came from Germany.”
According to Lakin, the design of the doll has some notable characteristics. The legs and arms of the doll are wooden, and the head is paper-mâché. The clothing is made of gauze and possibly silk. The style of the dress and the painted shoes are typical of the era.
However, the doll the Museum purchased does have an unusual hairstyle. According to Lakin, most female dolls of that era featured a hairstyle called an Apollo knot. In this style, the front section of hair was parted in the center, and the back section was collected into a knot-like bun at the very top of the head. There would also be some framing hair pieces in the front, generally represented by a cluster of curls around each ear. Like the face, the hair would be painted on the doll.
The Museum’s new doll does have the front framing hair pieces. However, there is no Apollo knot. Underneath the doll’s gauze cap, there is simply a bun on the back of the head.
Lakin determines a doll’s age based on her experience and research, including through researching costume books. “I collected [dolls] many, many years and went to a lot of auctions, a lot of sales, read a lot. … You learn by experience,” Lakin said. “I have a whole collection of costume books and that shows the hairstyle and clothing…so you use that.”
So what happened to Virginia, the original owner of the doll? In 1855, Virginia Helen Blackford married Jacob Henry Engle. Engle had been born in 1825 on a farm in Jefferson County, Virginia. In 1849, he was among a group of men from Charles Town who headed to California to seek their fortune in the gold rush. Engle succeeded, and returned to farming in Jefferson County in 1853. During the Civil War, he served in the Confederate army, reaching the rank of captain.
Following the war, Engle returned to his farm near Engle Station in Jefferson County. He and Virginia had three children: Alice Jane Engle Moler, Varena (Irene) Catherine Engle, and Lodenza Corban Engle. Jacob Engle died in 1900 and Virginia Engle died in 1915. They are both buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown.
The doll eventually descended through the Moler family. Virginia and Jacob’s daughter Alice Jane Engle married Raleigh Moler, and their son Hugh Swagler Moler wrote the note that accompanied the doll.
At the same time that the Museum bought Virginia’s doll, it also purchased a lover’s knot quilt made by Raleigh Moler’s mother Sarah Moler, in honor of her son Raleigh’s marriage to Alice Engle. The Museum has discovered a possible connection between that quilt and “Aunt Sallie’s Quilt,” which has hung in the Museum for many years.
“In researching Sarah Moler, HSC board member Terry Fulton found her obituary. It mentions that she was known as Aunt Sallie,” Bertazzoni said. “We are excited that we may not only have purchased a beautiful locally-made quilt, but that we may also have finally discovered the identity of Aunt Sallie. We are looking forward to displaying both the doll and the quilt.”
The Historic Shepherdstown Museum purchased both the doll and the quilt from a local antique dealer, who acquired them at an auction. They are expected to be on display when the Museum opens for the 2023 season.
By Jessie Ramcharran, HSC summer intern, 2022