Nurse dolls show how the profession has evolved
Monday, May 17, 2004
By ROGER GREEN
Booth Arts Writer
ANN ARBOR -- Until the 1970s, nurses could be identified by their bright, white uniforms and neat, tight caps. Today, such emblematic apparel is out of vogue -- look around any hospital corridor. But if gone, traditional nurses' uniforms have not been forgotten. They're the subject, together with related historic issues, of a lively exhibit at the University of Michigan Health System's Taubman Center.
"The History of Nursing as Portrayed by Dolls" brings together 100 dolls from the collection of Linda Strodtman, clinical nurse specialist in the UM Health System and assistant professor at UM's School of Nursing. Continuing through June 16, the exhibit is sponsored by the Health System's Gifts of Art, an enrichment program bringing art and music to patients, visitors and staff
Strodtman's personal theory is that nurses' uniforms evolved from Victorian nannies' indicative dress, which typically included a white, full-body apron. One aproned nanny doll appears in the exhibit, visually sustaining the connection.
Other dolls, variously attired, attest to other historic links, often mirroring societal change in striking ways. The dolls are of bisque, stuffed cloth, plastic and composition (sawdust and plaster). From 1900 comes the oldest nurse doll, dressed in a dark-blue uniform and white apron, supporting a Red Cross insignia. A more recent doll, dressed in Army fatigues, references the Desert Storm conflict.
Many of the dolls, though of recent vintage, portray historical figures. One is Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the English nurse/reformist who established trained nursing as profession for women. A bisque Nightingale doll, created by the Florence Nightingale Museum and the United States Historical Society, is an accurate portrait, Stodtman said. The pre-uniform doll wears a voluminous beige gown with lace trim. She's carrying the storied, folding lamp she brought on nighttime rounds of the Barrack Hospital in Scutari, Turkey, during the Crimean War.
More interesting and revealing are nurse dolls surviving from and reflecting recent historical periods. From the 1950s comes a collection of "Miss Curity" nurse dolls, used in nationwide advertising campaigns for Curity first-aid products. According to Strodtman, images of nurses were used to promote many kinds of products during the prosperous, post World War II years.
Some later dolls, from the 1960s and '70s, reference those decades' breakdown of traditional obstacles and categories. African-American nurse dolls from the period include "Julia," portraying Diahann Carroll's nurse character from the popular television series, and "Wanda," flaunting convention by sporting bell bottoms.
Nurse Whitney, who later evolved into svelte Nurse Barbie, also appears, along with Doctor Ken. Strodtman says that a Doctor Barbie doll now is available, but that other realities impacting the medical profession have yet to affect popular playthings.
No Asian- or Hispanic-American nurse dolls can be seen in stores today. Nor can any male nurse dolls, despite men's considerable presence in the nursing profession. So although dolls can reflect their time, some catching up seems in order. Strodtman hopes that will happen soon.
IF YOU GO: The nurse doll exhibit is in the long, level-one corridor of the Taubman Center, to the left of the main entrance to the University of Michigan Health Systems, 1500 East Medical Center Dr. Viewing is daily, 24 hours. For more information call Gifts of Art at (734) 936-ARTS.