Looking for a fun close-to-nature activity to do with the family? How about taking the fragments that remain from the summer garden and turning them into a fun activity by making corn cob dolls. It is an easy project that even a child can do with the assistance of an adult, yet novel enough and so much a part of an American folk tradition that adults, hobbyists, artisans–even historians–will enjoy it!
A Cultural Folk Heritage
From the time of the early settlers of the young United States to the present much has changed; but one thing hasn’t: the presence of dolls, an old-fashioned folk tradition. People are still people. They were in the past, they are in the present, and most likely they will be in the future. And children are still children: they still enjoy making simple playthings. In fact, we adults also appreciate the simplicity of folk art that reminds us of bygone years. One of those traditions is that of the homely corn cob doll.
First Things First
Before getting to work making a corn cob doll, there are a few preliminary tasks that must be done. First, the ear of corn must have the husk removed; and rather than waste all that delicious corn, make a nice meal of corn on the cob. Get some of that wonderful sweet corn that is growing this time of year. Cook it any way you like it–boil it, steam it, bake it, roast it, or grill it.
After eating, be sure all of the corn is removed. You may choose not to eat it directly off the cob (if you are more sophisticated). Rather, you can scrape it off with a knife. Regardless, scraping it off with a knife may be necessary to remove all of the corn fragments. Washing it with soap and water afterward will help ensure that it is clean for the project. Then let them dry in the sun on racks (or anywhere they can dry all the way around them). If you have a corn crib, you may throw it in there.) Your summer campfire can also help speed up the process. But not too close. Corn cobs are great fire starters!
Corncob Doll Overview
Basic Frame: Use a corn cob for the doll body. The head is a sliced piece of the corn cob sawed off. You will need pens to draw on the facial features. Indentations in the corn cob almost look like a face. A corn cob nubbin makes a great baby doll. A bean is used for the nose and is simply glued on.
Buckeye Dolls: Another variation (in order to make ethnic dolls) is to use a buckeye nut. It is a dark brown nut and can be used for making a brown or black doll. A nubbin also makes a baby buckeye doll.
Women corn cob dolls generally have sunbonnets and long dresses. Men dolls traditionally wear overalls.
Before getting started, you want to make sure you have the following materials:
- Wooden match
- Pipe cleaners (chenille stems)
- Bean, dried
- Cloth, cotton prints (perhaps calico for women dolls and plaid or gingham print for men dolls
- Blue denim remnant
- Muslin, cotton
- Lace, 5/8″ wide
- Felt tip pens, black and red
Steps to Making Basic Doll Frame
Take a corn cob and cut off 1″ for the head. The remainder of the corncob is used for the body. Drill a hole from one side of the body to the other at arm placement. Drill through head and body for neck placement. (This is where you will later insert the matchstick, using it as a dowel and securing the head to the body.) Apply glue to the entire neck area, including the drilled holes. Remove the match head from the match. Insert the dowel (the matchstick) into holes forming neck/head attachment. Using felt tip pens, draw the face. Taking 5 pipestem cleaners (chenille stems), stick them through the arm placement holes. Glue them into place. Taking some thread, tie the arms 5/8″ from the ends. The ends of the arms become fingers. This is the basic doll frame.
Making a Woman Doll
After making the basic frame there are some additional things that can be done to make the doll a girl or woman. Take a piece of muslin cloth 5″x 1/2 the width of the bolt (approximately 18′-22″). Gather the waist of the slip on a sewing machine or by hand. Secure the slip around the body and sew in place. You can make the skirt, bodice, and sunbonnet from a strip of cloth 5 1/4″ x 1/2 the width of the bolt (usually 18″-22″ long). For a full detailed pattern of these women clothing items, refer to the book American Folk Toys by Dick Schnacke. This book may be purchased online or checked out at your local library.
Trace the pieces onto the fabric and cut them out. Place bodice on the doll. Sew the underarms and down the sides. Then sew bodice and around the cuffs of the sleeves. Sew lace around the cuffs of the sleeves. Sew lace around the bonnet edge as well. Gather the bonnet edge with drawstring thread. Tie the thread about the head. Secure the bonnet with glue. Do not glue the back of the bonnet. Otherwise, it will not puff out.
The ends of the pipestem cleaners can be bent into fingers. Also, bend the pipe cleaners halfway to make elbows or bend into any posture desired. To ensure the doll stands up, make the corncob 1″ shorter than the dress skirt. If the corn cob is too long, it can be shortened by cutting or sawing it off. This works because the doll will rest part of its weight on the dress.
Making a Man Doll
If you are making a man doll, the corn cob needs to be split up 3″ from the bottom to create legs and allow them to fit into his overall trousers. The legs are also notched for feet. Other than that exception, the basic body of the doll is the same as that of the women. Use the same pattern from the woman bodice to make a shirt. (I would use a checkered, plaid, or gingham print or woven fabric.) The overalls are made from two scraps of blue denim fabric sewn together or simply glued in place. Add two strips to the top of the bib at the shoulders to make shoulder straps. Make a hat by cutting a 3″ diameter circle of burlap from a potato or peanut sack. Bunch it around the head and glue it into place. Add a denim hat band by gluing a strip to the burlap with fabric glue. Find a twig 1/8″ diameter x 5 1/4″ long to be used for the man’s walking stick. Bend/adjust the pipe cleaner fingers to create the look you want and glue in place. The walking stick helps the corn cob man stand up.
Baby Corn Cob Doll
A baby doll is made by taking a corn cob nubbin. Look at the photo to the left. The fourth one to the right would make a great baby doll, but of course, the kernels will have been removed. Draw on the face with one of the felt tip pens just as you did for the adult dolls. Add the nose in the same manner, excepting that you use a small navy bean instead. The arms are made from only one pipestem cleaner. Shorten it to 3″ long. There is only one piece of clothing for the baby doll–a 6″ square piece of flannel wrapped around the baby and secured with a small brass safety pin.
So off to Work We Go!
Well, there you have it. Walla! A corn cob doll–or two or three if you are making a family of them. Not difficult at all. Use your own creativity to create variation and uniqueness with each doll. A fun project to do as a family. Kids will love it! So this summer (or fall) grab that sweet corn, but after you are done devouring it, don’t throw that cob away! Rather, enjoy an additional pleasure by making yourself a piece of folk art, a fun toy, and a cultural heritage icon.
1. Schnacke, Dick. American Folk Toys.
New Martinsville, WV: Mountain Craft, 1992.
2. South Dakota State Historical Society
900 Governors Drive, Pierre, South Dakota 57501