Five-year-old Kourtney Pierce, her dark eyes round with awe, stared up at the 35 dolls, all with pretty brown faces like her own, arranged on a table Saturday at Armory Place in Silver Spring.

"I want that one," she said, tugging on her grandmother and pointing to a plastic baby doll in a red dress with a white bow.

Then she was gone, a polka-dot blur dashing across the room to admire a set of hand-sized rag doll quadruplets displayed in a white wicker carriage frothing with lace.

The area's first African-American Doll Show and Sale, a richly textured display of hundreds of dolls from old Aunt Jemimas to tribal costumed mannequins, drew more than 800 collectors, shoppers and browsers.

"This lets you know there is a thirst for black dolls," said show promoter Malinda Saunders, 55, a collector for 15 years.

"So many {dollmakers still} cannot get accepted on the commercial market. This gives them exposure, and lets the public know what is available. . . . When we were coming up, we didn't have the opportunity to own black dolls."

Though more common today, black dolls used to be nearly impossible to find in stores.

And the few that were available often portrayed glaringly negative images, from servants to pickaninnies.

Temple Hills resident Valerie Ewing, who came to the show with her two daughters, ages 8 and 11, said she remembered what those days were like. "When I was getting married," she said, "we couldn't find black {figurines} to put on top of the wedding cake. I had to buy white ones and put shoe polish on them."

Toy companies began making black dolls before the turn of the century, but at first they ignored all anthropological differences except skin color, using the same molds they used for white dolls. In the 1930s, the Ideal Toy Corp. pioneered a black doll with black features.

Today about 10 major toy manufacturers produce black dolls, according to show promoter Barbara Whiteman. And Saturday offered proof that the molds are gone.

There were boy and girl dolls, baby, adult and even old people dolls. Dolls with hair that was nappy, curly, spiraled, braided, straight, frizzy, corn-rowed and gold-spun. Dolls priced from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Dolls dressed in calico, velvet, burlap, lace, gingham and satin.

Elegant Nubian dancers in earth-toned batik dresses and matching headwraps contrasted with an urbane "Miz Thomasina" original in a long black gown and wide-brimmed hat with a burgundy plume.

Silver Spring dealer Karl Graham displayed black Nativity figures carved of thorns by a Nigerian man known as "Ibikunle the Carver."

Artists who choose dolls as their medium draw inspiration from various sources, said Irma Francis, a D.C. dollmaker. She fashions elegant soft sculptures in the likeness of traditional African gods and goddesses.

Dollmaker Francine Haskels said she has patterned a few after people she has seen on the subway. "I like to look at crowds and see all the different people and their different feelings," she said. "It's a lot like being a storyteller."

For those who wanted to try their hand at it, dollmaker Bernice Gassaway, of New Jersey, presented a workshop on how to make black angel tree-toppers. Wanda Hancock, a service department administrator with Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co., decided the angels would make great gifts for her co-workers.

"I never really played that much with dolls growing up, but I started learning about dolls from a friend, and it's grown into a passion," said Hancock, who has 20 dolls. "I think it's a great way to teach children, especially ethnic children. And this is for the whole family."

But the hobby can get out of hand, said Barbara Grey, of Richmond. She amassed 250 dolls before she realized that she no longer had room in her home for guests. "I decided that something needed to go," she said, so she brought 50 to the show to sell.

Also at the show was author Michelle Y. Green, of Waldorf, signing copies of her first book, "Willie Pearl," a children's story based on her mother's life, with a matching Willie Pearl vinyl doll.

"I have seen an improvement in the market demand. People are asking more about black dolls," said show organizer Saunders. "And you know, there are more adult doll collectors than kids. I enjoy dressing them, changing their outfits, doing their hair and moving them around. And the best part about it is when 9 o'clock comes, you know where your children are."