Discovering the Fullerton College Library Doll Collections

Housed on the second floor of the Fullerton College Library, two rare doll collections sit behind glass cases on display for the public eye. I never knew these existed until recently. Both collections were created or acquired by Fullerton residents and donated to the Fullerton College Library. I wanted to find out more about the Japanese Doll Collection and the Presidential Doll Collection, so I emailed Jane Ishibashi, Circulation Librarian at the Fullerton College Library, who was kind enough to talk to me about the collections.

“The Japanese doll collection was originally the property of Anita Shepardson, a teacher at Fullerton Union High School in 1913. She was teaching there for about thirty-three years. During that time, she did a lot of mentorships with Japanese-American students at the high school and the junior college. She was really interested in Japanese culture, so she would contact Japanese-Americans in Little Tokyo and have them come over and do Japanese tea ceremonies and dances sometimes,” said Jane. “On the Japanese Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival or Girls’ Festival), she would have people come over to the house and she would display her Japanese doll collection. When Anita Shepardson passed away in 1945, her family donated the doll collection to the college, so that’s how we got them. They’ve been at the college since 1945.”

When Anita Shepardson passed away in 1945, her family donated the doll collection to the college.

Walking over to the collection which was protected behind glass, Jane explained that there was supposed to be a hierarchal display with the Emperor and the Empress at the top. “We actually had to move them to make room for some book displays, so they’re not displayed entirely correctly,” said Jane. “The Emperor should be above everything else and the others should be in a line of one each, but we just don’t have the space. Right now, the Emperor is still on top of the Japanese dolls, but he shouldn’t be in the middle towards the bottom.”

I found out that traditionally in Japan, on Hina Matsuri, girls celebrate girlhood at parties with delicacies such as rice cakes and mild rice wine as they receive best wishes for health and happiness from friends and relatives. Students remembered that Ms. Shepardson would display the “Ohinasama” dolls on March 3rd to celebrate Hina Matsuri. A full set of these special dolls consisted of fifteen dolls dressed in costumes from the Heian Period (794-1185). A typical set included the emperor and empress, three ladies-in-waiting, three guards, two ministers, and five musicians. They’re normally displayed on a tiered stand with miniature furniture and household items with the imperial couple on the highest tier.

After further research at the library, I discovered that besides her activities on campus, Ms. Shepardson was active in the International Relations Club of Fullerton and the Japan-America Society of Los Angeles. Because of her involvement with the Japanese community, Ms. Shepardson was invited to go to Japan in 1938 on a tour sponsored by the Japanese consulate and members of the Japanese community. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ms. Shepardson continued to be a friend and supporter of the Japanese community. She made numerous trips to the Poston internment center where most of the Orange County Japanese were incarcerated. The Japanese doll collection is on display in remembrance of an instructor who dedicated her life to her students and worked to promote two cultures.

The dolls reflect Anita Shepardson’s ties with the Japanese community and Fullerton College. During a time in Orange County when Japanese and Japanese Americans were sometimes faced with anti-Japanese sentiments and segregation, Ms. Shepardson strove to promote cultural understanding and friendship between students. In fact, she organized and sponsored the Japanese Club for students at Fullerton Union High School and Fullerton Junior College. The club presented Fullerton Junior College with a landscaped Japanese garden. Extracurricular activities were common because Ms. Shepardson would take students on field trips to the Huntington Library, Red Rock Canyon and other areas of educational or cultural interest.

Switching gears, I asked Jane about the Presidential Doll Collection on display. It turns out that after World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt commissioned Lewis Sorensen to create a set of presidential dolls for her home in Hyde Park, which led him to create the three collections of dolls of the presidents and their wives. “Well, apparently, the doll maker, Lewis Sorensen created three sets of these dolls in 1946 and in 1959, at that time there was something called the Junior College Faculty Wives,” she said. “They eventually ended up raising money to purchase the doll collection in about 1962. So, with the help of about three of the administrators, they were able to purchase the collection. Out of the Presidential collections that Sorensen made, the Fullerton College collection is the most complete set because he made eight more dolls and then he added the Reagans. He passed away in Fullerton in 1985, so it stops with the Reagans.”

Eleanor Roosevelt commissioned Lewis Sorensen to create a set of presidential dolls for her home in Hyde Park.

What’s interesting is that he put Lincoln in twice. I suspect that Mr. Sorensen must have been a fan of Lincoln since he included two sets of the president and his wife. Jane said, “Occasionally, we have students say, ‘Where’s Obama?’ We have to tell them that, well, Sorensen passed away, so it stops at Reagan. But people have asked about that. So we don’t have anybody to add onto it since it stopped at his death.”

Lewis Sorensen didn’t just do presidential dolls, he also created wax figures. “He did everything. He did the dolls and wax figurines. He created the clothing and he also did Christmas ornaments. There’s also Befana, a Christmas figure. She’s an old woman who delivers candy and presents to children on January 5th, Epiphany Eve. I think it’s an Italian figure. So, he had a whole Christmas collection. He used to do figures for places like Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park. I think he even did some for Knott’s Berry Farm in the early days. So, he was well known for his wax figures, not just for the Presidential collection.”

Another interesting tidbit that I learned about Lewis Sorensen is that his mannequins were so lifelike that a Fullerton fireman summoned to Sorensen’s workroom during a flash fire thought one of his wax figures was real. One Fullerton College librarian analyzed him from a Freudian perspective. “He started doing designs for clothing. If you look at his autobiography, he did dresses and then he moved into these dolls,” she said. “He was unmarried and childless. I think these dolls were like his children. This is my take on it. I just think it’s rather strange that he was an old man making dolls.”

Presidential dolls by Lewis Sorensen.

Mr. Sorensen developed his own method of making the dolls. For the presidential doll collection, he first sculpted them in clay. This was covered in order to make a mold. In the mold, there’s cast paper mache which is covered in a thin coating of wax. The bodies are made of cloth, and the head, arms, lower legs and feet are made of wax. Using his dressmaking talent, Mr. Sorenson sewed each costume for the dolls right onto the body.

Both the Japanese Doll Collection and the Presidential Doll Collection were interesting to look at and learn about. Jane was even kind enough to open some of the glass cases, allowing me to get a closer look and a better picture of the dolls. To listen to what I learned with Jane Ishibashi and get a closer look at the dolls that I described, visit the Observer website and click the tab labeled “Local.” Underneath that tab, click on “Emerson Little YouTube Channel,” which will take you directly to my page.


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