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Object of the Month #3: A Well-Traveled Doll

Object of the Month #3
A Well-Traveled Doll
Korean Rag Doll (2013.01.118)
December 2014

This month’s object is a female rag doll from Korea, early-mid 20th century. The doll is made of cotton or silk: peach colored for the arms and face, white for the body and legs, and black for the back of the head. The doll’s hair, made of plaited dark brown human hair, is sewn to the head with the black fabric camouflaging gaps in coverage.

She is wearing traditional Korean dress, possibly that of a middle class woman. Her clothing is made of patterned silk in various colors, consisting of a light pink jacket (juhgori), light green pleated skirt (chima), fur lined purple vest (jokki), white pants under the skirt (sokbaji), and green shoes (taesahye) with red stitching. The shoes are fixed to the feet with straight pins through the backs of the heels. A rectangular fabric label on the front hem of the skirt reads, “Made in Korea.”

The doll doesn't show signs of heavy wear, although her clothing is significantly faded, especially on the front. Lesser fading on the back, taken into account with a horizontal crease across the front of the skirt suggests she had been propped against a wall in a seated position for some time. In other words, the doll was on display rather than used for play.

While the doll itself, with her expressive face, is interesting, what sets this Object of the Month apart is that we actually know the name of the donor. Found with this doll and six others in Dolben Library on the Northfield campus was a foxed index card with the name “Olivette Swallen.”

There is so much information about Olivette and her family, in fact, that I can only cover part of her story here. Olivette Roanna Swallen was born in 1893 to missionary parents in Seoul, Korea (now South Korea), and lived much of her childhood in Pyongyang (now in North Korea). Her father, the Rev. William L. Swallen, came by the education that allowed him to become a missionary almost by accident. The youngest child of a large farming family in Ohio, his schooling was minimal until a broken finger kept him out of the fields, allowing him to spend more time in school.[1] He ultimately went to college. In 1892, in the space of less than a year, he graduated from seminary, married a young widow named Sallie Willison Fisher, and moved to Korea to begin his life’s calling. Olivette was born there less than a year later.

By 1899 William and Sallie were parents to three young children, had moved from Seoul to Wonsan (now in North Korea), and then moved again, this time to Pyongyang. William described the approximately one hundred mile journey as a “6-day trip overland by sedan chair, pack-pony and I on my bicycle.”[2]

When Olivette was fifteen (by now the oldest of five siblings) she applied to Northfield Seminary. Her parents were interested in the school for a few reasons, writing to Evelyn Hall, principal of Northfield, in 1909, “We have one boy, and four girls. These we hope to provide with a good college education. But we are not able to do it at an expensive school… And the strong point for Northfield with us is the Christian influence and instruction which they will get there.”[3]

After attending Northfield and college, Olivette returned to Korea to begin her own missionary work in Seoul, and then Pyongyang. Later she became the principal of the Soong Eui Girl’s School in Pyongyang. The school still exists today, although it relocated to Seoul in 1953. The school participated in the resistance movement against the Japanese occupation in 1919, and closed its doors completely from 1938 to 1953, when its students would have been required to worship at Shinto shrines.[4] The unsettled times also required the Swallen family to leave Korea for the duration of the war.

Olivette retired in 1959, but didn’t return to the U.S. until probably the mid-1960s. This range of dates corresponds nicely with other information indicating a date for the donation of the doll. The index card bearing her name, found with the dolls, was written with a fountain pen. This seemingly minor detail turns out to be very useful. Ballpoint pens became ubiquitous around 1960, largely replacing fountain pens, which suggests a terminus ante quem for the donation. Terminus ante quem is a common archaeological term meaning “limit before which,” that indicates a boundary for the latest date an event could have happened.

Researching this doll turned out to be a gateway into the story of a fascinating alumna. I learned more about Olivette and her family than could possibly fit, so feel free to drop by the archives if you want to hear more.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Swallen, W. L., Rev. “A Brief Autobiography.” N.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Swallen, W. L., Rev. Letter to Miss Evelyn S. Hall. 17 Jan. 1909. MS. NMH Archives, Gill, MA

[4] “Stamp Issuance Program: The Centennial of Soong Eui School.” N.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.