Yesterday’s Children: Antique Doll & Toy Museum
As children, dolls are our friends, our confidantes, and often stand-ins for how we process the world around us. But at some point, those wide, glassy eyes become a screen upon which we project fear, judgment, and horror. A visit to Yesterday’s Children Antique Doll & Toy Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi, allows you to experience the duality of these emotions—comfort and fear—at the same time.
The museum opened in 1986 and moved to its present location the following year. Its initial purpose was to house the collection of Carolyn Bakarich—and to get the dolls out of her house at the request of husband, Mike. Carolyn enjoyed visiting with guests and sharing her knowledge of the dolls until her death in 2014. It’s now Mike who greets visitors, gives a brief orientation, and takes admission.
I visited the museum for the first time on a hot summer morning. As a native Vicksburgian, I’d passed it more times than I could say without going in. It sits on my favorite block of Washington Street across from the wonderful Lorelei Books, catty-corner to Highway 61 Coffee Shop and Attic Gallery. When I was younger and downtown was the place you went to “go out” at night, my friends and I hastened past the doll museum’s windows. You didn’t want to linger there when it was dark out.
Surprisingly, my mother also had never been to the museum and wanted to tag along with me. The result: an unexpected opportunity to bond and reminisce over her own childhood and mine—and also a chance to be kind of freaked out together. Moving through the tightly packed shelves, we alternated between high-pitched squeals of delight at recognizing a treasured plaything and a game of one-upmanship on picking out the most disturbing dolls.
My mother’s face softened at the sight of a Tiny Tears dolls that was filled with water and then squeezed to create a crying effect. An early Barbie Dream House made of cardboard, and put to shame by the over-the-top 1980s version I recall, had her reaching over the stanchions. As I reminded her again of the “don’t touch” rule, she repeated, “But I played with that one so much,” still lost in reverie.
I will admit that it was at times almost impossible to follow the rules. I was grateful that the familiar Little People village was located far enough out of reach not to be tempting.
There were cultural touchstones like the army of Shirley Temple dolls (including one Shirley Temple who was holding a tiny Shirley Temple). There were multiple Elvises, Marilyns, Rhetts, and Scarletts. There was a child version of Jackie O. Twin Princess Elizabeths stood side by side. The Barbie section was a who’s who of ’60s and ’70s icons—Donnie, Marie, Cher.
The wardrobes alone could be fodder for anyone studying fashion trends through the ages, with dolls dating back from the 1800s up to recent years. As you travel from the front of the exhibits to the back, dolls shift from wide skirts and pantaloons to flapper attire to elegant 1950s gloves and hats to short skirts and go-go boots to padded shouldered power suits and all looks in between.
There was a selection of modly outfitted Crissy Gro Hairs from the 1970s with Day-Glo dresses and horrifically uneven haircuts. I spotted a Sweet Cookie doll using a blender. A few steps away, there was a wall of thankfully silent Chatty Cathys.
I would note that while my husband politely declined to join us, there are a number of G.I. Joe’s, trains and other action figures that men and boys may relate to (not that I’m saying anything here about toys and gender).
And of course, there were the creepy dolls. We discovered something called Himstedt Dolls that were so eerily real I had to drag my mother away from a staring contest with one of them. There was a Princess Diana bride doll that was more reminiscent of her tragic end than the joy of her wedding day. A shelf full of ventriloquist dummies was quickly passed up. A horror movie monkey with cymbals was nestled next to a rainbow mermaid troll doll. (I think it was purposefully done to take the edge off.) Two Italian Lenci dolls glare at one another, separated by a wide-eyed Bo Peep type who seems to be silently screaming “help me.” Something called a Boudoir Doll lay propped up on a shelf, her makeup cracked, dreaming of better days.
I only had one question for Mike Bakarich, “Do you ever feel like they’re watching you?” Mr. Bakarich laughed heartily as if no one had ever asked him this one before. “You know, I heard a couple of high school boys in here for a field trip talking, and one of them said ‘I’d sure hate to spend a night in here!’ ” Then he got all serious again. “No, I don’t feel like they’re watching me.”
We were the only visitors to the museum at the time, but as we started to leave a woman came in with two teenagers and a very young girl. One of the teenagers was carrying a hermit crab cage. No one looked excited to be there. My mother browsed the wide selection of paper dolls in the gift shop, and I went back in to trail the group for a while, curious as to how the exhibit might be received. They quickly passed up the older dolls and headed for the section where the woman recognized the dolls from her childhood. Pretty soon she was pointing and they were all laughing at outdated fashions and asking questions. It was a genuinely sweet thing to watch. It also gave me courage to double back past all the ventriloquist dummies to get out of there.
Since Carolyn Bakarich’s death, the future of the museum has been somewhat uncertain. Hours are posted as Monday−Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm, but calling ahead is strongly advised. On the day we visited, Mr. Bakarich suggested we come before 2:30. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children under 12.
Yesterday’s Children Antique Doll & Toy Museum
1104 Washington St
*All photos by Kacey Hill