Today millions of little girls love their American Girl dolls and the many fashions and accessories that come with them. Ÿ Back in 1946, the equivalent was a cutie named Terri Lee, a 16-inch-tall doll first produced in Lincoln. Ÿ What started as a cottage industry in Nebraska’s capital city grew to become the fourth-best-selling doll of all time, according to a doll collecting magazine. Ÿ Now everyone can check out why she was special when more than 100 of them go on display at the Nebraska History Museum on Friday. The exhibit was made possible by Lincoln resident Marilyn Carney’s recent donation of about 300 Terri Lees to the State Historical Society.
Laura Mooney, a senior museum curator who was involved in the cataloging side of the collection as well as getting the dolls ready for the exhibit, said the donation was serendipitous.
“We planned to have a Terri Lee exhibit, but we only had a few and thought we were going to have to borrow dolls.”
Carney said she started looking for a new home for the dolls when she and her husband, Zean, decided to move from Wahoo to Lincoln. She had displayed them in special cases in her house.
She asked the historical society. Members were interested but wanted only a few. “But when they saw the collection, they took them all,” Carney said. “They were so excited.”
Mooney said the collection is “absolutely wonderful. They’re in great condition. She took really good care of them.”
Carney received her first Terri Lee for Christmas when was 10, she said. But she didn’t seriously start collecting them until she was an adult. “The history really interested me.”
She said she would find one here, another there, and soon was looking for specific dolls. The collection grew.
Lincoln’s Violet Gradwohl started the Terri Lee Co. after her niece, artist Maxine Runci, sculpted the doll’s head to resemble her daughter Drienne Runci. Unfortunately, Maxine Runci never got any credit for her work in the doll’s creation, said exhibit curator Tina Koeppe.
Gradwohl named the doll Terri Lee after her daughter, and soon had set up a factory, developed a marketing strategy and hired workers. Lincoln women, working from their homes, sewed thousands of fashionable clothes for the dolls.
A big break came when Montgomery Ward featured Terri Lee in its 1946 Christmas catalog. The orders came pouring in.
Over the years, other dolls were created for the line, including the black Patty-Jo and Bonnie Lou, the boy Jerri Lee, Nanook the Eskimo, and Mexican dolls Calypso and Guadelupe. There was a Linda Baby and a Linda Lee, a Gene Autry doll, a talking Terri and a Tiny Terri (10 inches).
Disaster struck on Dec. 15, 1951, when the O Street factory burned down during a snowstorm, Koeppe said. Gradwohl moved the dollmaking part of the business to California; eventually the clerical and clothing manufacturing moved there too, ending all production in Lincoln by 1956.
The doll continued to be popular but Gradwohl went into debt by trying new things, and she spent more time on her ranch than at the factory. In November 1958, the California plant also burned down. A financial adviser named Marvin James Miller committed the arson, and officials believed Gradwohl was complicit in the crime, Koeppe said. It ruined her reputation and she had to sell everything — including the factory and her ranch — to cover her debts.
Terri Lee dolls have continued to be created. Terri Lee Associates, based in Chicago, owns the rights to the line and licenses the manufacture, sale and distribution of Terri Lee products. It remains a family enterprise. The dolls had a major comeback in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Newer dolls still sell well, and vintage dolls are prized by collectors. Prices range anywhere from $45 to more than $500.
One of those vintage doll collectors is Clarice Johnson, who lives in the Sioux City, Iowa, area. She also began collecting dolls after her children were grown. Her interest in Terri Lees came in the 1980s because she liked their looks and the fact that they were originally made in Lincoln.
She said she has found them in flea markets, doll shows and online. She even bought some modern reissued dolls when they were carried by Target.
“They’ve really kept their value,” Johnson said of her dolls.
Carney said rarity has made some of the older dolls more valuable. She belongs to a national club for Terri Lee collectors. There are annual Terri Lee conventions and a website.
The first dolls in 1946 sold for $11.50. At that time, it was about the equivalent of what people pay for American Girl dolls today, Koeppe said. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, parents had endured the Depression and World War II and many wanted their children to have the best in toys. So they were willing to pay a little more, she said.
And these dolls were marketed differently from the baby dolls that were popular at the time, Koeppe added.
“They were sold as companions for little girls,” she said. “They were a best friend, not just a doll.
“Women still get misty-eyed talking about their Terri Lee.”
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