Gentle green eyes stare lovingly at the hundreds of faces surrounding her.
These are visages Eleanor Schiller knows intimately, and she sees them everyday.
Her dolls are a delightful part of her life. They are deliciously satisfying like hot soup enjoyed on a blistery winter day, or sweet iced tea sipped with friends under Southern sun. Her 1,700 dolls are testaments of time. These collectible treasures are breathtaking and sometimes fragile representatives of people and places familiar and strange, yet altogether beautiful in every way.
“There are some in there,” Schiller said while pointing perfectly manicured fingers to every compass point in her Myrtle Beach home. “There are some in here, and there are some in there. There are some upstairs. The teddy bears are upstairs.”
Schiller, 79, knows her doll planet well. She has orbited this universe since she was 2. Her collection contains creations from six continents.
“Nope,” she said with a tinge of disappointment and a soft sigh. “I don’t have any dolls from Antarctica. They don’t have dolls, but they do have penguins.
However, I do have a doll from the tip of South America. It is from Tierra del Fuego.”
Yet, most of her dolls are from places you’ve heard of, visited, or seen in National Geographic. Most are without names because they are simply too many to name.
Miss Elizabeth was born in the USA. She is Doll No. 826. She is known as a Downi Creation, which are dolls designed to represent children that have Down’s syndrome. Miss Elizabeth is in a lovely white dress accented with lace. Her slightly slanted eyes, tiny ears, and marginally protruding tongue can’t diminish the loveliness of her face.
Schiller glanced lovingly at Miss Elizabeth that sat near Nanny, Doll No. 333.
She is an African American doll made from fine, French porcelain that wears salt and pepper hair like a crown on her head. Her long apron and billowy dress are as detailed as her worn, but comely face, which revealed plenty of hard times softened by boundless hope.
Then, there are the Native American chiefs wearing brave faces. They stand not too far way from the Bantu people of Africa. The Africans are just below geishas dressed in exquisite silk clothing. Mr. T is standing somewhere near the top wearing numerous gold chains. Mr. Spock is chilling with Captain Kirk in the den.
Every shade of skin God created is seemingly here. Some dolls are darker than crude oil. Some are as shiny as gold. Some seem to be a new hue until now undiscovered. Their body types are just as diverse, too. Some are thick. Few are skinny.
“I had to have dolls that looked like me,” she said while pointing at a doll with a voluptuous shape.
She chuckled then, as she continued to visit some of her dolls. She picked each one up gingerly, as if she was holding a newborn for the first time.
Some of her close friends, including Miriam Little, are also doll collectors and understand the special endearment attached to each.
“Collecting dolls take us back to our childhood, and you treasure things connected to it,” said Little, a Conway resident and an original member of the Coastal Doll Collectors of South Carolina founded in 1979. Schiller joined in 1980.
Schiller’s first doll, nameless but for the numeric moniker of Doll No. 1, came into her life during Adolph Hitler’s menacing rise to power. It was during this time in our world’s history that a male friend of her father’s unknowingly gave birth to her collectible, cherished children. The doll dons blue eyes, dirty blonde pigtails, a delicate face, pouty painted lips, and cheeks oh-so rosy. Even a novice can tell there is few like her and that this baby, believed to be Hungarian or Czechoslovakian, is a beaut. Doll No. 1, however, has stiff competition because every doll in this house is exceptionally striking.
No matter where eyes travel, they will come to rest on a doll with a story, with an attitude, with style, with poise, with mystery, and with an undeniable magnetism that draws them in. Schiller always finds wonder here, too. As she sits at a long table inside her home where the most prominent displays of her dolls are, she marvels at how the home she shares with Hugo Schiller, her husband of 59 years, became a house of dolls.
The story goes like this: After Doll No. 1, the dolls just kept coming. Her parents and grandparents, who were Baltimore natives, traveled and returned with dolls for her. They were placed carefully in storage and weren’t taken out unless they were used as decorations for special occasions or holidays.
As the years passed, more dolls came to call Schiller mama. It didn’t take long before her son and daughter noticed that the dolls were taking over their former territory.
That’s when Hugo Schiller found a cabinetmaker in Conway to make some cabinets to provide additional storage space for his beloved’s other children.
“The ones on this end are European,’’ she said of the dolls nearest to where she sat. “The ones on the other end are from China, Japan, India; and there is one from Bangladesh.”
Just don’t ask her to pick which one she adores most. If you do, she will put a wee frown on that tender face before giving you an answer typical of doting mothers.
“They are like children,” she said. “You don’t talk about favorites. I love them all.”
Contact Johanna D. Wilson at JohannasCarolinaCharacters@gmail.com or to suggest subjects for an upcoming column.