Emily Manning recalls the years when she used the house payment, the grocery money, and the utility money to buy dolls.
"That was 17 years ago and I have been hooked on them ever since," she says. "Now, this doll hobby helps toward paying the rent."
Manning has accumulated more than 1,500 dolls and operates a repair workshop: Aunt Emily's Doll Hospital in Riverdale. She restores "to perfect health" most of the antique collectibles and some modern dolls that are brought in "sick."
"Old dolls were made to fix, but new ones are not. It's a shame to see a child crying for you to repair a new doll that just cannot be repaired," she says.
The pre-Christmas rush is the hospital's busiest time. "People go through their attics and find an old doll to give as a Christmas gift and most of them need extensive doctoring," says Manning, who tries to use authentic, but scarce, antique parts on the dolls she repairs. "But often I have to use my own parts and materials."
The need for doll repair remains steady for several weeks after Christmas. "Some people are so busy at Christmas they can't get around to bringing in their doll," she adds.
Last weekend Manning created one of her many doll exhibits for the Holiday House tour at Calvert Mansion in Riverdale. More than two dozen antique dolls were placed into the centuries-old Christmas setting. They included a mechanical Scrooge, first displayed in a New England department store window from 1870 to 1895. Manning said the mechanical Mr. Cratchit needs to go back into the hospital for rewiring "to give him more tension for better bending."
One doll -- an English slit-top wax doll -- was as old as the mansion itself, dating from the period 1760-1840. The doll had goat's hair, not the more commonly used human hair, and its original clothing.
"If dolls are not properly stored in some areas, mice will nibble on them," says Manning. "And old dolls must be cleaned regularly -- dirt deteriorates them -- and extreme temperatures in storage should be avoided."
Other dolls of all sizes, most with hand-blown glass eyes and a few with bamboo teeth, had expressions fashioned after the actual faces of living children. A French doll from 1895 could walk, talk and blow kisses. A 1900 wax angel adorned the top of a Christmas tree. Several dolls rested in an 1870 Joel Ellis wooden doll carriage or on an 1877 girl's iron tricycle.
Doll complexions reflect women's fashions of the women in their period at the time they were made, with the older dolls having paler complexions. One of the most valuable dolls in Manning's collection is an 1878 French doll that drinks from a bottle, blows bubbles and is burpable.
Manning said some antique dolls are worth thousands of dollars nowadays.
Most of the dolls in her collection have stories behind them. "I have a genuine voodoo doll from Haiti with human fingernails and needle holes all over it. It's scary, but I just try to ignore it."
Some modern dolls are collectible, Manning says. Advertising dolls -- the commercial, mail-order dolls such as the Pillsbury Dough Boy -- are worth keeping because they are produced in limited numbers. Dolls recently designed by artists recognized by the National Institute of American Doll Artists also are widely collected. Manning says the only local store that carries new collectible dolls is the downtown Woodward and Lothrop store.
For those who own dolls in need of emergency repair, Aunt Emily's Doll Hospital staggers its hours to accommodate crises.