Monday, August 27, 2012

Portia Howe Sperry (1890-1967)

Everyone knows Raggedy Ann, the little rag doll with red yarn for hair and a red felt heart pinned to her breast. Raggedy Ann was born from the imagination of Indiana illustrator Johnny Gruelle in 1915. Nearly a hundred years later, she is beloved by children (and grownups) everywhere. Far less well known is Abigail, the Log Cabin Doll, another Indiana doll created by Portia Howe Sperry and designed to help children learn to dress themselves. 

Portia Howe Sperry was born on June 21, 1890, in Chicago and educated at Milwaukee-Downer College as a teacher of physical education. She married Ralph W.E. Sperry in 1914 and lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, from 1914 to 1917. She returned to take up permanent residence in 1929, at the outset of the Great Depression. When her husband's piano factory closed, Portia moved her family to the backwoods of Brown County, Indiana. Eventually she took over the management of a shop called Brown County Folks, where she sold handicrafts. Portia also began developing a doll called Abigail, with a face designed by local artist L.O. Griffith, manufacturing by local Brown County women, and packaging donated by the Quaker Oats Company. The doll was christened at the Nashville House on February 27, 1932. In 1938, Albert Whitman and Company of Chicago published a companion book, Abigail, by Portia Howe Sperry and Lois Donaldson and illustrated by Chicago artist Zabeth Selover. The inside dust jacket of Abigail summarizes the story:
A story of covered wagon days which the whole family will enjoy. Father, mother, two older brothers, Susan, a little girl of ten, and her baby brother travel overland from Kentucky to a new home in Brown County, Indiana. 
And who is Abigail? The most enchanting companion a little girl going to a new home could have--a cloth doll dressed as a little girl dressed in 1835.
Abigail is still made by the Sperry family, and the book named after her is still in print. You can read more about the doll, the book, the business, and the woman who created all three at the website Abigail Doll, at

Portia Howe Sperry died on April 21, 1967. A plaque in Nashville, Indiana, commemorates her life and work.

The cover and the double-page spread that opens the story of Susan and her doll Abigail as they travel to Brown County, Indiana. These drawings by Zabeth Selover are from the seventh printing of the book, 1967. Note the container for the doll: the Quaker Oats Company provided a double-length oats carton for the original Abigail doll. Portia Howe Sperry and her helpers covered the cartons in wallpaper and affixed a handle to them for easy carrying.

Text copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

No comments:

Post a Comment