My small Asian Gofun doll…

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       This eight inch, vintage, boy(?) doll dressed in Chinese folk costume has a head molded using layers of ground oyster shell (gofun) and wood pulp. He also has real human hair braided and attached into one whole in his head at the back.

       The child’s costume is embroidered with Buddhist symbols: a red feather, incense burner, and yellow Bon hat. It’s coat was once brilliant blue and the pants red still… The doll’s shoes are in excellent condition given it’s age.

       Doll artists in China made dolls using oyster shell and sold these to an American market during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. However most collectors in the United States are familiar with the Japanese Ichimatsu versions from that date from 1920s through the 1950s.

Left, the jacket unbuttoned to reveal ‘Made In China’ printed in red. Center, the hands are very
worn; this must have been a toy well loved. Right, The jacket embroidery includes lucky,
Buddhist symbols.

       This version above is of an Asian doll made using gofun is from China. He or She is most likely older than those Japanese dolls made with the same methods and materials. However, I am unaware of it’s exact age, but I do know that the doll is Chinese, not Japanese.

        “Gofun is scrapings from the shell of a Gofun oyster, ground into a fine powder and mixed with glue from Nikawa seaweed. This mixture is painted over a wood pulp composition face or other body parts many many times. The number of coats determines the quality of the doll. If the doll has a gofun covered face, it is much more valuable than the modern hard plastic head of dolls now being made in Japan. One way to determine if gofun has been used is to gently see if there is a small hole where the hair is inserted in the head.” Judd, Price Guide African and Asian Costumed Dolls, 1995, edited

Tips For Cleaning Dolls Parts Made With Gofun:

  • If the doll’s face, hands or feet need cleaning desperately, only use very tiny amounts of mild soap and water on the tip of a cotton swab! Do not press down hard, this will remove the top coat of paint if you are not careful enough.
  • Some folks will not use water, but gum erasers only. In either case, these dolls are extremely delicate and should be only cleaned with the utmost care.
  • The dust on a doll’s clothing may be removed with a small blow-dryer on it’s cool setting only. Otherwise you may need to opt for a clothing replacement altogether if the garments are beyond saving. 
  • Caution, the garments are often not color fast and if washed they will bleed out in the water and discolor other pale colors in the same garment, even if you use a mild soap!
  • Many smaller, antique Ichimatsu have clothing that is sewn directly onto their rag bodies. These tiny stitches may be removed and the body parts replaced with duplicates if necessary. You will need to take these apart entirely and trace around the original patterns to restore some cloth body and costume parts. Do this only if the doll is hopelessly damaged as it will affect it’s collectible value.
  • Ichimatsu can be repainted/restored by a doll hospital that will research it’s original history. Of course these cleaning tips are only for the less valuable friendship dolls that are circulating among the general, ordinary collecting public. There are extremely valuable friendship dolls that are museum quality dolls made with wood not wood composite. Those dolls must be cleaned by a museum conservator.
  • There are eleven of the original 58 Friendship Dolls given by Japan many years ago (1927) that are missing. These dolls where all 33 inches tall and should be only cleaned and altered by museums. They are very valuable and should be identified by experts and only altered by them.

Learning About Japanese Traditions in Doll Art:

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