Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Mythology of the Baby Doll Head, by Don Orth

Anyone who samples water, fish, or plants or animals in aquatic environments will eventually encounter a baby doll, or simply a baby doll head.  It may not be the creepiest thing you will ever encounter (Dead human bodies top the list), but it is one of those encounters that we dont teach about in college or training courses.   Is it a curse of the baby doll head?  Or is it a sign of good fortune to come?  What will happen if I stare too long into those baby doll eyes?  Let me begin with a little history.  Porcelain dolls were first made in the 17th century.  These dolls were really made more for show than for a childs plaything.   Today, porcelain dolls and porcelain doll heads are collectibles, and therefore never discarded.    The baby doll head Im writing about (photo) is the one that has long since been discarded and found its way into a local stream or pond and has been part of the bed load or supporting a rich aufwuchs community for many months or years.
Baby Doll Head recovered from a stream in southwest Virginia.  Photo by Michael Moore.

By the 1950s all baby dolls were made with plastics.  It was the beginning of the hard plastic baby doll head era.  One can still find these vintage baby dolls for sale on   By 1960,  some of these baby dolls had eyelids that moved.  These "rock-a-bye" eyes would open or close when the doll's orientation shifted.   In order for these rock-a-bye eyes to move, the baby doll head had to be hard plastic.    Hard plastic baby doll era ended by the late 1960s and these vintage hard headed baby dolls are collectibles.  See Vintage Tiny Tears, for example.   

Plastics have been a major part of the world culture for over 50 years and the plastics legacy will be with us forever.   The movie, "The Graduate, released in 1967, forever immortalized plastics with this dialogue between Benjamin, the talented yet aimless young graduate, and Mr. McGuire. 
     Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
     Benjamin: Yes, sir.
     Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
     Benjamin: Yes, I am.
     Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
     Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
     Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
You thought Mrs. Robinson, youre trying to seduce me. was the most quotable line from that movie.    Huh?   Didnt you?!

Mr. McGuire foreshadowed our preoccupation with plastics and those plastic softeners, otherwise known as plasticizers.   These plasticizers ushered in a new era of soft plastics, including the soft baby doll head.    Little did Mr. McGuire know, but many of these plasticizers, or phthalate esters, were potential endocrine disruptors and cause developmental toxicity.  I digress because we should all care about the plastic waste in our environment.  A recent study documented widespread occurrence of plastic debris in fishes and other seafood directly sold for human consumption.  Yuk!   If it tastes like plastic, there may be a good reason.   Quantities of plastic resins produced globally reached 288 million MT in 2012; much of this ends up as waste in oceans, lakes, rivers and estuaries.   Jambeck et al. (2015) predict that we will not reach the global peak before 2100.  In the meantime we need to reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink, and restrain in our plastics use.     

 Quantities of mismanaged plastic waste entering oceans (Jambeck et al. 2015)

We now live in Mr. McGuires great world of plastics plastic upholstery, plastic bumpers, plastic laptops, plastic smartphones, plastic grocery bags, and even plastic baby dolls.   Eventually, sometime when you least expect it your field sampling crew will encounter a baby doll head.  What will you do?   In my experience, it is the rare crew member who encounters the baby doll head and simply ignores it, leaving it where it was found.   There are a variety of reactions that may occur; once you encounter a baby doll head while doing aquatic field work you will be forever changed.  The baby doll head mythologies will emerge.  Other crew members will share their stories.  And you will begin to wonder.   Who owned this former baby doll?  What was the baby dolls name?  How long has it lived amidst the benthos?  What was once such a treasure or comfort to a young child may now give a grown-up  -- a former child -- the creeps.

Let me tell two stories about a fisheries biologist.  Ill call him Don to protect the innocent.

First Story:  Don had a new research project to examine the effects of urbanization and storm-water management on stream water quality and fishes.   On the first sample trip, a large container of formaldehyde leaked into the bottom of the Chevy Suburban while the crew was sampling.  The crew took the Suburban to a local car wash to flush out the residue, but the smell was persistent their vehicle would thereafter be the Smelly Suburban.  Later in this very same project, first one crew member, then another developed red, scaly rashes on their arms and legs.  Because they were working in urban streams, the crew used hand sanitizers twice per day and cleaned and disinfected waders and gloves weekly.   Don suspected MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), as antibiotics resulted in only slight improvements.   When they returned from another perfectly awful day, Don started to download photos from the digital camera and realized there were only three photos from the 87 photos logged in the field notebook.  Somehow 84 photos were erased.    The next day one of his field assistants stepped on a yellow jacket nest when walking along the stream bank and received multiple stings.   Don administered epinephrine with the EpiPen and tried to put cold packs on all the sting locations. He watched for signs of difficulty breathing as the other assistant reloaded equipment into the smelly Suburban.   

Thats when they found the doll head in a storm drain.  This was Dons first encounter with a baby doll head. By that time he and the others were already convinced that this project was cursed.   The baby doll was named Baby Blacknose because of a black stain across its face that resembled the most common urban fish, the Blacknose Dace   Reluctantly the crew accepted Baby Blacknose as project mascot.  It was a helpless admission that the project was cursed.  So the crew developed a story about when the baby was manufactured, when and where the baby was purchased, and even the story of the family that gave the baby to a little girl on her second birthday.    In the days that followed, the rashes healed and even the lost digital photos mysteriously appeared.   The motor pool reported that smelly Chevy Suburban was on a recall list for safety reasons and the project was assigned a new Chevy Suburban.  The project continued through completion with Baby Blacknose proudly displayed for all to see. 

Baby Mudbutt, Photo by D.J.Orth
Second Story:  Don had the dream project, sampling the diverse fauna of fish, mussels, crayfish, and macroinvertebrates in a distant, unexplored watershed.   Each sampling trip would bring at least one new discovery of a fish long thought to be lost from the system or some new sampling technique that made the field crew more efficient.  There was substantial interest on the part of the research sponsor and the next report would be accompanied with a proposal to renew and expand the project.  Each excursion was a new adventure and the Chevy Suburban was fully loaded to overflowing with sampling gear for the upcoming investigation.   On this particular excursion, Don brought along the principal investigator.  The first sampling day was an amazing adventure as they captured a juvenile  darter of special interest to the principal investigator.   Later on this very same excursion, while snorkeling for mussels, they encountered a baby doll head, half-buried in the stream sediments.   Don listened intently as the principal investigator pontificated on the many places he had sampled during his illustrious career.  The baby doll head was christened with the name Baby Floater and became the project mascot the bearer of all good mojo.   As it turned out, Baby Floater was not the bearer of good mojo, just the opposite.     On their return trip home, the transmission on the Chevy Suburban started to delay when shifting and by the time they got home, the 2nd and 3rd gears were gone.  On the next trip one of the field assistants slipped down a bank and broke her collarbone.   A replacement assistant was trained and on the very next sampling trip the electroshocker shorted out and caught fire.   The project report was submitted on time but the proposed continuation was rejected due to budget cuts and all staff members had to be reassigned. 

In the first story, we see that the baby doll brings good mojo, whereas in the second the baby doll brings bad mojo.     Don knew that the baby doll didnt bring either good or bad mojo; to do so would be to argue post hoc, ergo propter hoc. (After this, therefore because of this).  He was a good scientist; and he knew how easy it was for scientists to fool themselves.  

Mythologies develop to help explain phenomena that we dont clearly understand.  So Don developed the baby doll head mythology.   The story we tell is all important to whether the baby doll head will bring good or bad fortune.  The baby doll head demands a story and it is the responsibility of the finder to tell this story.  If you already have a baby doll head mascot, its not too late to develop this story.  Dont simply leave the baby doll head in the bottom of the live-well.

Baby Doll Head that resides in one of our electrofishing boats.  Photo by D.J. Orth
What do I do when I encounter a baby doll head, but we already have a lab mascot?  This question arises sooner than you expect.   Unlike the beverage containers you may pick up when sampling, the baby doll heads are not recyclable.   You may collect them one doll head at a time, but no one appreciates a bunch of old, dirty doll heads in the lab.   Here I offer a modest number of creative suggestions for your excess baby doll heads. 

Joel Slaton used the doll heads he collected, along with doll arms, legs, and liquor bottles,  to mark what he now calls the Dolls-Head Trail in a park near the industrial district in Atlanta, Georgia. Read more about the Dolls-Head Trail here.    Some have gone so far as to create tourist attractions from the discarded dolls.   The Island Of The Dolls (Isla de las Muñecas),  near Xochimilco is one of the creepiest tourist attraction in Mexico.   
Baby Doll Heads can be dark and creepy.
 "The story goes that some half a century ago a little girl drowned off a small island hidden deep amongst the canals of Xochimilco. The islands only permanent inhabitant was a hermit named Don Julián Santana Barrera, who despite having a wife and family, chose to live alone on the island. Soon after the girls death Barrera fished out one doll after another from the canals. Convinced that this was a sign from the evil spirit, Don Julian Santana began hanging them on trees to protect himself from evil and calm the spirit of the dead girl. Soon Don Julián had made the entire island into a shrine."   If it sounds creepy, I assure you that it is.  Watch this creepy doll turn its head along a forest trail

There are easier ways to be creative with your extra doll heads.    One option is to take your doll head with you everywhere to share the story of the baby doll head.  In this photo (below), the Baby Doll Bob is photographed with the dinner entrée
Baby Doll Head Bob with recent dinner entrée.
One practical solution is to use the extra baby doll head as the Lab Safety Mascot or Baby Doll Safety First!   We can easily tire of repeating the safety rules Report all accidents, injuries, and breakage of glass or equipment immediately.  Keep pathways clear by placing extra items on shelves.  Wear safety goggles. Know the location of fire extinguisher, eye wash station, and first aid kit……”   So make this the job of Baby Doll Safety First!    

Baby Mudbutt assists with water safety training.  Photo by D.J. Orth
Creative types have found many uses of the discarded baby doll heads.    One can make planters, candleholders, string of lights, lamps, more lampsbrassieres, and other weird displays.     With Halloween in the near future, you may wish to create a creepy baby doll costume.  Just watch this "How To" video.    If you can solve the problem of cleaning the baby doll head, you will be able to sell the extras.  The vintage doll heads are collectibles; this one is listed for sale at $10.

Nighlight made from a cracked baby doll head.  Source.
Share your own photos, stories, and experiences with encounters with baby dolls on with #babydollhead.  


Halden, R.U. 2010.  Plastics and health risksAnnual Review of Public Health 31:179-194.
Jambeck, J.R., and seven coauthors.  2015.  Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean.  Science 347(6223):768-771.    
Nuzzo, R. 2015.  How scientists fool themselves -- and how they can stopNature  526:182-185.
Rochman, C.M. and eight coauthors. 2015. Anthropogenic debris in seafood: plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 14340     doi:10.1038/srep14340


  1. A sister taxa of the baby doll head graced the FWS Coop Unit Suburban I used throughout my time as the original leader of Team Logperch. "Scary Barbie Doll" remained suspended from the rearview mirror by her few remaining strands of hair and bought both good mojo and bad mojo, depending on the treatment she received from my undergraduate field assistants. She was also responsible for a feature article on the logperch project in the Roanoke Times when a feature writer saw her and walked down to our study site to figure out what was going on....

  2. Hi, Don, please allow me to relate my story about TVA's first baby doll encounter.
    In the late 1970's, TVA was nearing the completion of Columbia Dam on the Duck River in Tennessee. The one remaining environmental roadblock was the rare and endangered mussels in the Duck River, particularly the birdwing pearly mussel (Lemiox rimosus). Still reeling from the closure of Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River after snail darters were successfully transplanted to the Hiwassee and Holston rivers, it seemed inevitable that mussels would also be 'successfully transplanted' from the Duck River to other Tennessee drainage rivers, and Columbia Dam would be completed. But before any mussel transplants were made, TVA fisheries biologists were charged with the mission of finding fish communities similar to the Duck River where birdwing pearly mussels were present, to other streams in the Tennessee drainage, which would increase the chances of successful mussel transplants. The fish surveys were conducted 1979-81, and TVA biologists strove to provide the most intensive stream fish surveys possible at the time. This was before widespread use of backpack shockers. Boat shockers were also not used, because of potential harm to the mussels and also because the fish species believed to be the host of birdwing pearly mussels were riffle-dwelling species, particularly banded darters. In 1979, we sampled Duck River riffles day and night. During the day, we used snorkel-seining methods carried over from Little Tennessee River snail darter sampling: Four snorkelers drifting downstream, banging 4' PVC pipes chained together to drive fish into a 20' seine. (Cool, huh?) But at night, our crews sampled the riffles by either kicking through the riffles or downstream seine hauls. Battery-powered headlamps weren't available in 1979, so we wore carbide lamps on hard hats, similar to what coal miners wore. Needless to say, our night vision was limited. (Finally to the baby doll part.) At one point, I was hauling one end of the seine one night in a downstream run. As we approached the shore, I watched the leadline to be sure it was on the river bottom, and I saw something bobbing on the river surface in the partial light. It looked like a baby! My fear was that it WAS an actual baby! We pulled the seine onto the bank and all eyes and carbide flames were drawn in horror to the figure of a small child. To our relief, it was actually a plastic baby doll, and in an instant someone snatched off the head and began throwing it around in the dark amongst the crew! From then on, the baby doll was honored in various ways, as it added to our sampling effort. Often it observed our sampling from the top of a seine brail or road the dash of our vehicle. Frequently it appeared in unexpected locations, such as wetsuit bags, suitcases, wader boots, motel beds, and later, office drawers. From then on, TVA field crews routinely watched for additional baby dolls to rescue from their watery graves and re-purpose them for future sampling activities. And the idea spread quickly throughout the Southeast.
    Someone correct me if they know of an earlier encounter.

    By the way, Columbia Dam was never completed. In fact, the concrete portion of the dam was destroyed so the dam could never be completed. Mussel and fish populations in the Duck River are in excellent condition, as is the Duck River below Normandy Dam to the Tennessee River.

  3. The story I heard in the early 1990s (not sure of the date of the incidents of the story) was that TVA biologists were snorkeling as part of a mussel survey when they began to see circular shadows on the streambed moving downstream. They had recently found a baby doll head and kept it with their gear. Turned out to be shadows of beer bottles floating downstream. A beer truck had overturned at an upstream bridge. This was deemed to be good luck and baby doll heads started being displayed as talismans on TVA backpack and boat shockers.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Superbly written article, if only all bloggers offered the same content as you, the internet would be a far better place.. American Girls Dolls for Sale