Handyman made dolls worth thousands, but never saw a penny

MACON, Ga. (AP) — Before toymakers realized there was a market for black baby dolls, a black handyman in Macon was making them by hand.

When he was not working on houses for white families in Macon during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Leo Moss was painting the faces of his friends and family on papier-mache heads, coloring their skin with chimney soot or boot dye.

Today, the dolls are rarities worth thousands of dollars. Moss never saw a penny of it. He died poor and it is said he is buried in a pauper’s grave in Illinois.

Private collectors and a few museums across the country are among those in possession of the dolls. None of them are on display in his hometown of Macon, where his story is not often told as a part of the city’s history.

A couple of months ago, an infant doll with plump cheeks, a tiny dimple and sad eyes was displayed at the National Museum for Toys and Miniatures in Kansas City, Missouri.

Amy McKune, curator of collections there, said Moss was rediscovered as an artist in the 1970s.

“His family still had many of the dolls in their collection at that point,” she said. “A collector who discovered him purchased some of the dolls from the family. The doll in our collection was one of those.”

Moss’ family sold more than a dozen of his dolls to the Myla Perkins collection, to other collectors in Europe and other parts of America.

“It’s interesting and unfortunate that they don’t have any in Macon, Georgia,” McKune said.

Moss, she said, is important because “he was representing and creating African American dolls and not many people were doing that.”

Decades ago, some of the dolls were displayed in a temporary exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Sciences, according to Telegraph archives.

It’s unclear how many Leo Moss dolls are in existence today, but at least two of them are modeled after white sisters who were daughters of one of his employers.

Except for the glass eyes, most of the dolls are made with scrap material Moss found working as a handyman.

The dolls are expressive and often visibly sad. Some are pouting. Others have tears streaming down their faces.

Little is known about what inspired the sad expressions, but two possibilities are explored in archives and books about the history of dolls.

The first one is that sadness Moss’ life inspired the crying dolls. It is said that Moss’s wife left him and took their child to New York to live with a man whom Moss purchased doll parts from, McKune said.

The other legend is that, “if a child started to cry when he was modeling it, he would just put the tears in,” she said.


Information from: The Telegraph, http://www.macontelegraph.com