The University of Maryland is home once again to the minikins – the instructional tools developed in the early 1960s by professors in the College of Home Economics, Eileen Heagney and June Wilbur, along with businesswoman Dr. Dorothy S. Lyle.
The Dorothy S. Lyle, Eileen Heagney, and June Wilbur papers was recently donated by Adele Heagney, Eileen Heagney’s niece, and is now housed in the Historical Manuscripts unit of Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland. The collection consists of six notebooks of correspondence, publications, pamphlets, photographs and other promotional material for the minikins and well as various versions of the minikins and their fashion accessories. The collection will be useful for researchers interested in women’s studies, fashion design, and the history of home economics and dry cleaning.
Minikins were developed to aid the teaching of sewing and fashion design in home economics classes and to promote the services of dry cleaners. Both “Miss Dot Jr.” (15 inches tall) and “Miss Dot Sr.” (32 inches tall), shown together below, were named after Lyle, who was Director of Consumer Relations for the National Institute of Drycleaning of Silver Spring, Maryland.
Made of latex, the minikins have elongated limbs, narrow waists, and breasts that seemingly require no support, features which resemble other interpretations of the female form that date to the mid-20th-century, like the better-known Barbie (created in 1959). Both Miss Dot Sr. and Jr. were only available in a single pink skin tone. However, for all the resemblances to other forms, the minikins were developed to reflect a “scientific” or proportional body configuration. Miss Dot Sr. was one-eighth of a standard woman’s size 16, at least by 1960s clothing sizes. Miss Dot. Jr. was said to be – however inaccurately – one-fifth the size of “a regular coed.”
The development of the idea for using minikins in classrooms dates at least to 1940-1941, when Eileen Heagney (born 1915) was herself a student. During a course on home economics at Penn State University, her teacher used small dolls to demonstrate the principles of fashion design. In December 1947, after graduating with the goal of becoming a fashion designer, Heagney started working at the Butterick Pattern Company, the design company founded during the Civil War as a purveyor of patterns and clothing supplies for homemakers. While in New York City, she edited versions of a book entitled Butterick New Sewing Book (1952) and Quick and Easy Sewing (1953).
By 1952 Heagney had taken a job as a professor in the College of Home Economics at the University of Maryland. Though large mannequins were on campus and used for draping, Heagney pushed for the use of minikins in the classroom and as a display model during the college’s open houses for prospective students. Either she or her department purchased three Butterick minikins, first displaying them during an open house on campus in May 1953. Students made great use of the three early minikins, but they fell out of favor as their arms loosened and fingers broke after several years of use.
Professor Heagney continued to utilize small-scale clothing design in various summer courses that she taught at the University in 1961 and 1962.
Dorothy S. Lyle’s visit to campus in January 1963 led to the birth of Miss Dot. Interested in learning more about the dolls, Lyle, then working to promote drycleaning on behalf of the National Drycleaning Institute (NID) in Silver Spring, met with Heagney to discuss purchasing minikins for a display at the convention of the NID in Washington, DC, in March 1963. The NID bought four minikins, with the hopes that drycleaners would see them as “point of sale display items.” The response was somewhat negative, though, as the models were “ugly in appearance and stance.” Lyle and Heagney hashed out a redesign of the minikins over hot fudge sundaes at the University Grill. Two months later, Miss Dot Sr. had been born. Standing 32 inches tall, Miss Dot Sr. was large and somewhat imposing, even if not a full size mannequin.
Heagney and Lyle hoped to create a minikin that was versatile, equally at home in a drycleaner’s window and useful for teaching pattern design. In Lyle’s words, Miss Dot Sr. “was created to be used for either a window, counter, or shadow-box display, or as a TV prop.”
But the commercial and educational overlapped freely. The appearance of Miss Dot coincided with the revision of Lyle’s massive 500-page book, Focus on Fabrics, the foremost authority in the field of fabric selection and interior design. As early as November 1963, the College of Home Economics – which had over 600 undergraduate and graduate majors – was planning to offer a spring course on Advanced Textiles taught at the NID facility by Robert Graham, a member of NID (University of Maryland, College of Home Economics Communique, Vol. 1, 1963; Terrapin [yearbook], 1965, p. 68). During the mid-1960s, the University of Maryland was touted as offering “a strong fashion design program,” including courses by Heagney and June Wilbur, as well as summer courses taught by Lyle (Co-Ed, April 1966, p. 36).
Yet Miss Dot Sr. was not an overwhelming hit with the drycleaners, with whom the commercial success of the dolls ultimately lay. The 32-inch dolls were a bit fragile and their clothing was costly. Initially they were priced at $40 for a nude minikin and $245 for four outfits. Additionally, it was thought that smaller 15-inch minikins, would be more user-friendly to students, who had increasingly come to expect individualized educational experiences. As Dr. Lyle later commented, “We wanted her to be the type of young adult who could wear clothes well; the type of woman any co-ed might aspire to emulate; the type of woman who might bring out the best in a student of design” (Practical Forecast, April 1966, F-17). Thus, Miss Dot Jr. was born.
By summer 1965, sales of the minikins began to climb, as NID had become a major direct-market distributor of minikins, which were manufactured by Ar-Tee Creations. Sold at $12.50 each for the nude minikin, or $35 with a gown included, Miss Dot Jr. was priced more reasonably than Miss Dot Sr. Considering that NID had 10,000 member drycleaners in 1968, the sales potential was great.
The use of Miss Dot Jr. in the classroom was not without controversy. In the fall of 1965, the Head of the Department of Textiles and Clothing, Miss T. Faye Mitchell, questioned whether the minikins had been approved for use in Maryland classrooms, or whether they were a special pet project that had not been officially approved. Strong words, terse phone calls, and tense meetings ensued. Tensions escalated to the point where Dean Erna Chapman decided not to approve Lyle’s contract to teach Textiles 200, a course planned for the summer of 1966. In response, Dr. Lyle requested a meeting with R. Lee Hornbake, then Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University.
Further research may illuminate more about this “minikin controversy,” though it was undeniable by 1967 the minikins had achieved a level of popularity among educators. In October of that year, the Washington Post featured a picture of a University of Maryland student working on textiles with Miss Dot Jr. Other schools had adopted the techniques of small-scale fashion design, and many had purchased Miss Dot Jr. For instance, the Coleman Technical Institute in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, ordered 24 minikins for use in its post-secondary school classes. The Viscayas Agricultural College in the Philippines also showed interest. Moreover, Heagney, Wilbur, and Lyle attended the convention of the American Home Economics Association in Dallas, where they showcased Miss Dot Jr. in a major display for the benefit of the National Institute of Drycleaning.
Though styles in fashion changed drastically by the end of the 1960s, professors Eileen Heagney and June Wilbur may have continued to utilize minikins in their courses at the University of Maryland during the 1970s. Even as greater numbers of women began to work outside the home and thus had less interest, need, or time for clothing design within the home, Heagney remained a professor of Textiles and Consumer Economics until her retirement in 1986, a year or two before the former College of Home Economics closed its programs completely.
The collection includes four intact original examples of Miss Dot Sr. and several intact Miss Dot Jrs. (on and off their stands), as well as numerous outfits of varying fabrics and designs, along with various accessories including wigs and jewelry. Come on and meet Miss Dot in the Maryland Room of Hornbake Library!
Images not otherwise attributed were kindly taken by Edith Sandler, Severn Collections Coordinator, at the University of Maryland Libraries.
Dr. Eric C. Stoykovich is Historical Manuscripts Project Archivist in the University of Maryland’s Special Collections in Hornbake Library, where he works under the Curator on collections which tell the story of political officials and civic groups in the state of Maryland. He received his MLS from UMD’s iSchool and a PhD in American history from the University of Virginia. His interests include archival history, political development, and institutional change.