Friday, January 13, 2012

Jig Dolls, Lumberjacks, and Dancin' Dans

​During the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans had many forms of home entertainment. Many of these involved the playing and enjoying of music. Jig dolls, or limberjacks as they are sometimes called, are one form of folk art that came out of this musical tradition. A jig doll is a jointed wooden figure that was attached to a rod and panel, and could be manipulated by the player of an instrument or someone moving the doll to the tune of the music. The history of these dolls goes back hundreds of years, with the first being used by itinerant Italian street performers to animate their shows. Many European countries had their own version of the jig doll. This form was brought to America with settlers and immigrants, and it developed into a distinctive American form. Jig dolls could be carved or turned, and were often painted to reflect a character or stereotypical image. They usually had both jointed arms and legs which flailed either wildly when moved or in a dancing motion, depending on the skill of the handler! Jog dolls can be seen in folk art collections and have been recognized and collected as such.

​At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the ways in which Americans listened to and played music changed drastically with the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Alva Edison. The first phonographs played recorded music on wax cylinders. The more popular and commercially used phonographs used flat discs, onto which a groove was made which contained the music. Phonograph companies and inventors alike produced jig dolls and limberjacks that could be attached to the turntable or sound arm of a phonograph, that would vibrate to the tune of the music. As they became more mass produced, certain recognizable characters developed, including Ragtime Rastus, Happy Fanny, and Dancin’ Dan and Dancin’ Dina.

​The question then arises, when do jig dolls stop being folk art, and start being part of popular culture? Is this transition and abrupt one with the introduction of mechanized production? Can relevant information about music and home entertainment history still be gleaned from the later jig dolls? I think so, but I guess that question will be left up to the material scholars of the future.

-by Kelly Mustone, American Folk Art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Nice post Kelly! I've been collecting limberjacks for years and their form is as varied as American folk art itself. Their homemade manufacture seems to have really slowed starting in the 1930's, as did a lot of other types of American folk art forms. It's great to see someone doing research on the topic!

    Check out my blog to see a number of different examples (just type in "limberjack" or "articulated figures" in the search):

  2. Thanks, Joey. I passed your note on to Kelly via email just in case she didn't see it here. We appreciate the information on the other examples!


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