March 17, 2010
Jessie McCutcheon and Her Dolls
Oh, those marvelous McCutcheons; Chicago's own Fab Four! There was John, cartoonist and world traveler; George the novelist; Ben, financial journalist and novelist (under the pen name, "Ben Brace); and finally, Jessie, the youngest and only sister. The brothers may have have been better known, but make no mistake. Jessie McCutcheon also made her mark - particularly on the hearts of children...
By Ursula Mertz and Don Jensen
Jessie McCutcheon loved dolls and from about 1916 through the early 1920s she was an entrepreneur in the doll-making industry. Her factory on Clyburn Avenue in Chicago employed hundreds to make the realistic looking composition dolls that became increasingly popular with children and collectors. Jessie hired young women students attending the Art Institute to do the high quality face painting of her dolls and her Raleigh dolls are quite prized by collectors today. Unfortunately, relatively little is known about Jessie's doll operations. A little more is known about Jessie herself.
Like her brothers, Jessie was born in Indiana. She eventually married Albert Raleigh and they moved to the wide open spaces of Helena, MT. where they welcomed a son. The marriage didn't last, however, and around 1914, she divorced Albert and moved to Chicago (actually Glencoe). A well brought up young lady, Jessie had always been interested in art and cultural things. Though not an artist herself, she promoted (and sold) a sort of good luck charm, popular in those days, a statuette or figurine called The Good Fairy which rivaled the Kewpie doll at that time. Her interest in doll making began about 1916. But, Jessie didn't want to make just any kind of plaything; her dolls were to have an artistic quality. With a $20,000 loan from one of her brothers, she started her doll factory, the Raleigh Doll Co., in Chicago. In 1919 she married Andrew Wilbur Nelson, who was also one of her doll company employees. A. Wilbur Nelson would go on to business success in advertising and insurance.
With her remarriage, and the birth of a second son, she seemingly lost interest in the doll business. It is unclear, but sometime in the 1920-1922 period, she sold her doll company to another, and lesser known Chicago firm called the Pollyana Co. which continued her dolls for a while but then got more involved in making doll clothing.(It continued into the 1920s, but seemingly went belly up before or during the Depression) Jessie happily settled into a the life of a society matron. She and her husband and family moved to Manhattan where she was a hit in the Society circles. There are brief newspaper accounts of their summering in the Berkshires. About 1930, Jessie became involved in the short-lived do-gooder organization, Lindyanna Inc. and was elected Vice-President. Lindyanna supporters had a notion that the then recent marriage of Charles A. Lindbergh and Anne Morrow was a symbol of world peace. Lindbergh apparently was then trying to work for ending instability and bringing a peaceful conclusion to growing problems in Europe. Of course, he would be later seen as a Hitler appeaser, but in 1930 Morrow and Lindbergh were seen as voices of reason, peace and culture. The Lindyannas were a sort of culture, fine arts and world travel club for the New York social elite, and Jessie was a supporter and officer.
And, that is where the story ends. Jessie McCutcheon died in 1964. She was survived by her husband and sons, John Raleigh and William Nelson.
Ursula Mertz is a researcher and writer living in suburban Albany, NY. Don Jenson is a retired newspaperman and a not so retired freelance writer living in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
But wait, there's more...
If you would like to know more about Jessie McCutcheon's dolls, you are in luck! The United Federation of Doll Clubs is holding their annual convention in Chicago this year, July 18-23 at the Hyatt Regency, and will include a special exhibit of Raleigh dolls and a presentation on Jessie McCutcheon by Ursula and Don. Full details are available on the convention website, "My Favorite Things."
The Good Fairy Statue (Pretty much everything you'd want to know; includes pictures)
Photo credit: Jessie and her dolls Cite as: DN-0070081, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum