Why you should care
Because these toddler-size dolls are both terrifying and fascinating.
Weaving among the 1958 Chevrolets, 1962 Cadillacs and 1975 Ford Thunderbirds at a classic car show in downtown Fort Myers, Florida, I see what looks like a red-haired toddler facing a palm tree, hands covering her face. She wears white sneakers, a poodle skirt and, rather disturbingly, a sign reading “My parents don’t want me. Take me home for $25.” A closer inspection reveals the toddler isn’t human, but a doll so lifelike that others are also looking twice. A man nearby bursts into laughter. “Yeah — picked her up from the flea market!” he shouts.
“Time out” dolls are faceless child look-alikes. Also known by other names — pouting, corner, hide-and-seek, crybaby, punished — the dolls were once big finds at flea markets and antique stores. But, says Fort Myer’s Fleamasters Fleamarket employee Mary Tinaro, they have “had their season, and their season is over” (up until a couple of years ago the Fleamsters Fleamarket had an entire stall of time out dolls). The dolls can still be found, though, on sites like Etsy and eBay, in part because they remain a common — and creepily curious — fixture at many classic car shows.
The dolls’ original designer remains unknown, though the commonly held belief is that they were created in Appalachia in the 1990s as home decorations. (You might remember seeing one in your great-aunt’s house somewhere in rural Indiana, its face buried in a corner or against a rocking chair. Chilling.)
For a while, the dolls were all the rage in the quilting and crafting community. Then they grabbed the interest of classic car owners. Why? Decoration, for one — they’re definitely eye-catching. Some say the dolls can also be used to hide flaws such as bumper dents and paint scratches. Others say making dolls is a way for “the wives” to share in their partner’s automotive interests. Each time out doll and its attire is individually sewed — often with creative and thoughtful detail (though some admittedly take the easier route and buy outfits from Build-A-Bear).
At the classic car shows it’s about period-appropriate outfits. “Time out dolls are representations of children dressed in period costume. So the representation of innocence and nostalgia is pretty heavy-handed,” says Jennifer Whitney, a professor at Cardiff University in the U.K. and co-editor of Doll Studies: The Many Meanings of Girls’ Toys and Play. “And, of course, this works so well with car shows because they too are so invested in nostalgia for a kind of bygone era.”
Whether or not you have an interest in old cars, it’s worth checking out a show for the staged scenes that owners create with vintage cars (a stereotypically “masculine” hobby) and vintage dolls (a stereotypically “feminine” hobby). You might see a cherry-red Cadillac with a miniature Elvis impersonator in its front seat, or an early-1950s car with a poodle-skirt-wearing girl and a small boy in Grease-like attire leaning against a bumper with hamburgers and shakes beside them. Try not to think about the fact that all of these dolls appear to be enduring some kind of punishment or existing in a permanent moment of sadness.
No, it’s about celebrating the good ol’ past, which makes sense in a place like southwest Florida, a haven for sun-seeking retirees. For the rest of us, seeing the time out dolls can perhaps fulfill a morbid curiosity — not unlike checking out some taxidermy. Or maybe just reconnect with some hazy front-room memories of relatives past.