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Collector Spotlight: Mary Wernke


Mary Wernke collects dolls from Mattel’s Barbie brand, including Barbie’s long line of family and friends. In this edition of Collector Spotlight, Wernke shares her early start as a collector and why she focuses on Skipper, Barbie’s younger sister.

How do you describe your collection?

I have a collection of between 900 to 1000 Skipper dolls, Barbies, and their umpteen friends and relatives including their siblings, Todd, Stacie, and Kelly; cousins, Jazzie and Francie; and others.

When and why did you start your collection?

My sisters, Barb and Joan, and I played with the dolls in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Barb got the Barbie dolls, of course. I bought a Casey doll – one of Francie’s friends – at a flea market and it took on a life of its own. I started going to doll and antique shows looking for dolls. I created sales lists that were distributed through the mail. This was a time before the internet. I placed an ad for my lists in doll magazines. People could send a self-addressed stamped envelope to me and receive the sales list in the mail. To buy something, you’d send a cheque in the mail. I had accessories and dolls from the 1970s that no one else was selling. That lasted until the mid-1990s when the internet came along. 

I started collecting the dolls around 1984 when I got out of college and started working. If I bought a nude doll at a garage sale, or when I would buy a new doll who wore a swimsuit, I always tried to re-dress her in an outfit that was sold the same year she was made. I never lost interest in the dolls. Even as a little girl I always asked for Skipper and not Barbie. I just identified with Skipper more; she was preppy and came with glasses. I wear glasses. My mother was a very good seamstress – that’s what she did for a living. She made doll clothes for us. I’m  1000% less talented, but I would use the same patterns my mom used and also made outfits for my dolls out of scraps of fabric.

In 1994 I created an exhibit for the Cincinnati Museum Center. I had approached the Museum a couple of years earlier about doing a display for Barbie’s 35th birthday. I wanted to include a Barbie, Ken, and Skipper for every year. It took me a year and a half to create. The exhibit was on display for about two months.

I stopped buying new stuff, for the most part, in 1999. I ran out of room, everything kept getting more expensive, and since I had two 1959 items, I figured 40 years of stuff was enough.  Although, I do occasionally go back and buy stuff from 1999 and before.

How do you display and store your collection?

All the dolls are out in the room – the Barbie room – on plain bookcases and credenzas. They’re handy and I can always find the doll I want. I like to set up the dolls in scenes. I’ve made my own Christmas cards using scenes I’ve created with the dolls. I buy little trees and itty-bitty gifts for the scene.

I started collecting before the internet. When I bought a new doll, I would get out an index card and write down the year it was purchased and staple the store receipt to the card. If it was a doll I picked up at a garage sale, I would identify it using a reference book and create the index card. I have hundreds of index cards. I buy tags with little strings attached at a business supply store so I can write down the name of the doll, the line, and the year and put it on the dolls. I should digitize everything but I just haven’t done it. I have tonnes of handwritten notes I took from packaging about the dolls and accessories. That was the emphasis when I started on Twitter.  I chose Twitter because I had all this trivia in my head I wanted to share.

Although I have a number of collectible dolls still in the boxes, mostly one from each department store or ones that were exclusive to certain countries, most of my merchandise is from the play lines.

What do you consider to be the Holy Grail of Skipper dolls?

I bought a Skipper doll from Joe Blitman, a collector in southern California. It’s not quite a prototype but it’s close. The doll is a sample of a 1990 babysitter Skipper doll. Her outfit is white with orange polka dots. The polka dots are actually tiny orange stickers made from paper that are just stuck on to the fabric. This doll was used in a 1991 Mattel catalog. The doll pictured in the catalog is the one I actually have. That’s the rarest one I own.

I had a hard time finding the 1968 twist and turn Skipper – she was the first one with eyelashes. The Skipper dolls that are harder to find are the ones from Japan with brown eyes and the 1967 bent-leg Skipper dolls with pink skin.

What advice would you give to someone interested in starting a similar collection?

Just ignore what people tell you: take them out of the box, you’re allowed. Don’t be afraid to re-dress the dolls and don’t be afraid to buy the friends and relatives – it doesn’t need to be all Barbie. 

Visit Mary Wernke’s blog to see more of her collection.

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