Happy birthday, Ellen!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’d like to dedicate some special time to each doll around their birthday to make sure no one is getting left out, and because in general I want to do more individual doll stuff but also find it a bit overwhelming.

In theory, great. In practice, much tougher when you have a full time job and a baby. Ellen’s birthday came up first, and while I would have really liked to take her out to some historic Boston landmark since she’s my historic Boston girl, it just didn’t happen because her birthday fell on a rainy Thursday and I didn’t plan ahead to do it last weekend. 😡 Oops! An additional excuse for this lackluster photoshoot is that there really isn’t anywhere good at my house to shoot. My backyard is tiny and surrounded by neighbors and chain link fence, and inside my apartment is crowded with poor lighting. It’s the whole reason I got the lightbox, and now I’m realizing that long term it’d make sense to get some more backgrounds.

So in the end, this is a very simple and unimpressive photoshoot. But that combined with her new purple dress and photos yesterday, and me doing some writing on her story (which I won’t post here because it’s work on her grown up story, not her child story), I don’t think it’s such a bad birthday for her.


A little bit more about Ellen then, some of which will be recap. Mary Ellen Templin (TOTAL COINCIDENCE that AG later released a Maryellen…grrr) was born in 1830 near Galway, Ireland, the youngest of a large family (three elder brothers and two elder sisters) of tenant farmers. Mary Ellen knew little of life before famine hit Ireland, though she considered her early childhood warm and loving and happy. The famine years brought great difficulty as her family fought to survive against starvation, exposure, and disease after losing their land. Finally, after several family deaths and unsure how much longer the famine would continue, the remaining members of Ellen’s family began to flee Ireland through various means. Ellen’s mother and grandma managed to get her into an adoption program in Boston, off to be the new daughter of Catherine and Matthew McLeskey in 1849.

Irish nightclothes in an old chemise of mama’s and with grandma’s broach

Catherine, the daughter of local Boston politicians, and Matthew, a businessman and entrepreneur who’s done well for himself. They have two grown sons and always wanted a daughter but have accepted there won’t be another baby in their future. Their view of Ellen’s Irishness is complicated. They take her to Protestant church and change her name to Ellen Catherine McLeskey and at first want her to completely forget her previous life in Ireland. Over time they all come to better terms, and eventually Ellen finds her way to balance the poor Irish farmgirl of her past and the wealthy Boston doll she is now.

Until she gets older and tragedy strikes again but that’s a later story. 🙂

Ellen’s Easter dress was a way overzealous early sewing project. Notice the Catholic cross, another valuable heirloom from Ireland.

Ellen’s personality is shy with streaks of daring bravery. A lot of her shyness stems from uncertainty about her new life and her place in the Boston world, as she’s very aware though not usually ashamed of her differences –her wild hair, her freckles, her accent. She develops a love of reading and wishes to travel the world, an idea put into her head by Gabriel, her brother’s best friend back in Ireland who turns up in Boston after stowing away on a ship. She’s naturally polite and orderly and strives to do well but finds her voice as she grows and will question the status quo when she sees injustice. She is overall optimistic, something even the famine didn’t destroy in her, and kind-hearted and very, very fond of hot cocoa.

ellen5When all I’d done was rewig her and wasn’t sure about her time period yet. Yikes, that pale face!

In terms of the doll, so much of her is in homage to my family, as I’ve got Irish on both sides. Her names are all family names, and even her brown eyes-red hair combo (rather than the more common red hair with blue eyes) is after my mom’s and grandpa’s coloring. I’ve been fascinated by the Irish potato famine since I was a little girl, and upon moving to Boston grew to appreciate too the city’s history in the 1840s and 1850s, so of course the first custom I ever did would be a doll exploring those things.

I hadn’t realized until right now that actually Ellen is one of my older dolls in general. That Kirsten isn’t with me anymore, so other than my childhood dolls (Sam, Kit, Josefina), Felicity is the only one in my collection older than Ellen!

Ellen is much prettier in person than she usually photographs. She was my first little ragamufin custom doll, and there’s still some work that needs to be done on her (her eyelids need repainting and her legs are LOOOOOSE.) I’ve never been totally satisfied with her face paint and yet somehow it suits her. I’ve had great fun making and collecting pieces for her wardrobe, which spans really the late 1830s to the mid 1850s. In Ireland she would have worn mostly hand-me-downs and the quality would have deteriorated during the famine, whereas in Boston she’s at the very front of the fashion curve since her family has money, has always wanted a daughter to spoil, and they live in a harbor city so near Europe. Her hair does have a side part, which was not the fashion then. But her hair is wild and unruly, a key trait in her story, and it makes sense to me that trying to part it in the middle as was the fashion just didn’t go well.


For her birthday, I photographed Ellen with her Papa’s fiddle and potatos, but in her pretty red birthday dress (which is Cecile’s fancy dress and one of my favorite dresses American Girl ever released). Though fiddling would not be considered appropriate for a woman in Ellen’s time, her father had taught her to play and so she was given his fiddle to take with her after he passed away.


As for the potatoes, it was not the blight and famine alone that caused such a catastrophe in Ireland in the 1840s, but a much larger problem with how England viewed and treated Ireland, and how the country was structured as a tenant system. Actually a great deal of potatos were grown during the famine, some say enough to have staved off the famine for most of those years. However, the potatoes not affected by blight were shipped off to England and there was not enough money in Ireland to buy their own crop back.

New school dress but no lips yet!

Of course, there was more to it than even that. I could write a whole series on the  Irish potato famine and the religious and political factors that went into it, creating one of the largest diasporas in history and one that had a great impact on the development of the United States and Australia both. If you’re interested in reading more about it yourself, Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 by Susan Campbell Bartoletti is one of my absolute favorite references.

IMG_9776Caroling with Josefina

Happy birthday, Ellen!



One thought on “Happy birthday, Ellen!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s