The Amish of the northeastern United States have a reputation for simple, well made crafts. Some of their handcrafts, including quilts and dolls have become collector’s items and spawned a cottage industry. One of the most distinctive traits of Amish dolls is that they have no facial features. But the exact reason for this feature remains obscure.
One of the most frequently cited reasons that Amish dolls do not have faces is that the biblical book of Deuteronomy prohibits the creation of graven images. One common story that is part of the doll making tradition is that a young Amish girl was given a doll by her teacher. When she brought it home, her father replaced the doll’s head with an old sock. He then told her that "only God can make people." Since then, according to tradition, all Amish children have played with rag dolls that had no faces.
Among several cultures, there is an idea that a doll’s face can encourage too much pride in a child. According to the Oneida Nation Museum, corn husk dolls were left without faces because if the doll has a face, the child will identify with the doll too much. A pretty face on the doll can cause conceit or self-pride in the child. According to Iroquois tradition, a corn husk doll that was sent to play with children became conceited after seeing her reflection. As punishment, an eagle stole her reflection—and her features.
In some Amish homes, there were few toys for children to begin with. Some toys, such as dolls, were created by wrapping pieces of wood in cloth. Since toys were few and far in between, both boys and girls played with them. From these makeshift dolls, it’s possible that the faceless dolls evolved from these wooden baby dolls.
Around the same time that the Amish were making faceless dolls, other dolls on the American frontier were also being made of corn husks old scraps of clothing and even wooden spoons and clothespins wrapped in cloth. According to Linda Walsh Originals, the corn husk doll is the oldest doll made in America. Pioneer dolls, which were often known as rag dolls, shared a common characteristic with the rag doll of the Amish community in that they did not have a face. It is possible those Amish dolls evolved from the same doll making tradition as pioneer dolls, and that the reason that they do not have a face is that traditional pioneer dolls did not have faces.
There is plenty of evidence that indicates that the tradition of the faceless doll is partially promoted to bolster the cottage industry of doll making for tourists. Today, Amish children are sometimes bought modern dolls with faces that are then dressed in Amish clothing, or have dolls made with faces. There are even some examples of Amish rag dolls with faces either drawn or sewn on them. Some modern porcelain dolls are even dressed as Amish children with detailed, molded faces.
Tracy Morris has been a freelance writer since 2000. She has published novels and numerous online articles. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers including "Ferrets," "CatFancy," "Lexington Herald Leader" and "The Tulsa World." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Arkansas.