Made in Kentuckiana: Turner Dolls, last vinyl dolls made in the U.S.

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by Kelsey Starks

WHAS11.com

Posted on December 21, 2011 at 6:28 PM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 21 at 6:42 PM

(WHAS11) -- Dolls are a Christmas staple for many little girls, but besides being made in Santa’s workshop they are also made in factories all over the world; however, there’s only one place in the United States that still makes vinyl dolls and it’s in southern Indiana.

In the small town of Heltonville, Indiana in Lawrence County sits an unassuming building, down a narrow drive; and inside is a last of its kind.  "We are the only United States manufacturing company, in dolls, that's left," said Virginia Turner, owner and creator of Turner Dolls.  She makes dolls, and lots of them, but not as many as she used to.

The factory, that once turned out 500 of each new doll, is now lucky to get 50 sold.  “There's dolls being made in China, and they are so much less money than what we can afford to do them for,” said Turner.  “Actually, we have seen an increase in sales in the last three months and a lot of it is because [customers] want made in the USA."

Virginia's brother, Charlie, pours vinyl into molds; each sculpted by Virginia herself.  They are melted to the mold and then cooled.  Virginia paints each doll's face herself, with diluted automotive paint that's used for vinyl interiors, to give them a life-like appearance.  Each of the doll’s eyes is put on by hand; their bodies are stuffed and limbs assembled.  Even the doll’s clothes are cut and sewn by hand, but in real life the doll business is facing a harsh reality.

“Made in the USA is wonderful, but you just can't compete,” said Turner.  “You can't compete with labor, materials, anything else.  We have to think if we can afford to go on.”  Virginia has been in the doll business since the 1980's.  She started sculpting her own molds in 1989 and that's the same time a very famous doll was born; the American Girl doll, the popular doll that teaches young girls about different periods in American history, is now being made in China.

“Every girl in the U.S. has an American Girl,” said Turner.  “They were made on the East Coast, but they were sold to Mattel and they're all made in China now too.  It's sad what's happening, but that's just the way it is," said Turner.  The American Girl's creator sold the company to Mattel in 1998 for $700 million.  Turner says even if she could make money like that, she wouldn't do it.

“I'm not going to give my molds. or my sculpts. to anybody but us,” she said.  “I just want to keep them here in Indiana.  So far, some way, we've managed to stay in [business]!  Making dolls is just a lot of fun.”  In fact, some of the baby dolls they make at a loss just so real American girls can have a doll made in the USA.

Turner Dolls retail for anywhere from $40 to $400.  To find out more or to order one, you can visit www.turnerdolls.com.

 

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