Ponchatoula — Rooms in Cynthia and George Orgeron’s rambling Victorian home in downtown Ponchatoula are lined with floor-to-ceiling cases filled with dolls. It’s a massive collection that Cynthia Orgeron stopped counting long ago.
“My husband would say thousands,” said Orgeron, who started collecting when her daughter was 5. She’s 47 now. That’s 42 or so years of doll shows, estate sales and trips in search of dolls.
“Other dealers and vendors know what we like and what we collect,” she said. “We get dolls from deceased collectors’ estates, from collectors who downsize or people who knock on my door with dolls.”
As a child growing up in New Orleans, Orgeron had dolls, but she didn’t really play with them. She displayed them on an extra bed in her room. “They had to be kept perfect,” she said.
Her real interest in dolls started when her daughter attended a Catholic school that often had fairs and events to raise money. Because she could sew, one of the mothers gave her some hard plastic dolls to take home and dress. They were so well received that she purchased 20 more dolls, dressed them and took them to the flea market in the French Quarter. “I sold them all within five or six hours,” Orgeron said.
A member of a New Orleans doll club invited Orgeron to a meeting. “I didn’t know there was such a thing,” she said.
Because so few of the collectors in the club knew how to sew, members started asking Orgeron to costume dolls for them.
“I dressed all types, from antique to modern,” she said.
With her father’s assistance, Orgeron bought a kiln and some molds and started making porcelain dolls. “He loaned me the money,” she said. “Within a few months, I paid him back.”
Eventually she joined the United Federation of Doll Clubs Inc. and several local doll clubs including the Bayou Bebes of Baton Rouge, which is holding its biennial doll show and sale Feb. 23.
Like most members of doll clubs, Orgeron believes that dolls are much more than playthings. “Dolls are a study of man,” she said. “So much about doll collecting teaches us about ourselves.”
Dolls have also been a livelihood for women entrepreneurs, like Grace Storey Putnam, who designed the Bye-Lo, one of the first dolls to look like a real baby.
“She and her husband were both artists,” Orgeron said. “In the 1920s when her husband developed a brain tumor, she designed what came to be called the ‘million dollar baby.’ She was doing this in a man’s world.” The doll was put in production by George Borgfeldt & Co., of New York, and Putnam made a commission on each one.
Orgeron still makes dolls and teaches a doll-making class once a week. “I do costuming and doll restoration,” she said. “I am a doll appraiser and doll vendor. George and I do 12 to 15 doll shows annually all around the country.”
She also does educational programs and conducts doll tours, where she takes participants to see public and private collections in South Louisiana. “I eat, breathe and sleep dolls every day of my life,” she said.
Orgeron says that rarity, condition and originality are the three things that judges look for when they are judging dolls. Her area of emphasis is dolls that were made from about 1880 to the 1920s. “That seems to be the golden age of toys,” she said.
She considers French dolls the finest because of the definition in the sculpting and the clothing. “German dolls were more for the middle class or upper middle class,” she said.
The earliest doll in the collection dates to about 1723. “She is completely original, constructed of wood,” Orgeron said. “Her clothing consists of paper, cardboard and silk.”
George Orgeron is also a collector. Each weekday, he travels 53 miles each way to the Avondale Shipyard, where he works. “He will tell you that 65 percent of the collection is his,” Cynthia Orgeron said. “He actually buys more dolls than I do simply because the dolls I prefer are more costly.”
Even though the collection is almost completely antique dolls, Orgeron has a great appreciation for such modern dolls as the American Girl. “They are a wonderful doll,” she said. “They hold up well to children playing with them. Plus they offer restoration service. It’s a wonderful product.”
Both Orgerons believe that doll clubs are important to educate the public and because of the philanthropy the groups do. “A lot of the work and proceeds from our show go into education of doll collecting and community projects,” she said.
The local group has contributed to the Ronald McDonald House and the local Battered Women’s Shelter.
“We have also adopted families on occasion like during a hurricane situation or at Christmas time if the need comes to our attention,” she said.