‘I Have Eyeballs in Jars’: Inside the Creepy-Cute World of the Doll Hospital
From Florida to Canada, doll repair workers are trying to save a much-loved industry from death, one teddy bear at a time.
Ines Casas runs the Secaucus Doll and Teddy Bear Hospital, where you can find her stitching, re-stuffing, washing, and sewing up tchotchkes Tuesday through Saturday, from 10:30 to 5 p.m.
When she’s not caring for dolls, she serves as customers’ unofficial therapist. With her purple-streaked hair, dinosaur-emblazoned apron, and reporter’s sense of curiosity, Cases makes a point to learn the background of each “patient” that comes through her door.
“Behind every teddy bear, there is a story,” Casas, 72, told The Daily Beast. “I have my way to get it. I’m very curious, and people always like to talk.”
After 30 years in the business, Casas has heard it all. She has worked on dolls rescued from Nazi Germany, teddies that immigrated to the U.S. alongside their owners, and toys that miraculously survive devastating fires.
“Rich, poor, middle class, whatever—they come to the doll hospital,” Casas said. “Even if you are very poor, you get attached to a doll or teddy bear, and you want to get it fixed. Sometimes it’s the only family that they have. They want to fix it, clean it, it’s very valuable to them.”
One yarn, seemingly plucked from a romance paperback, stars a repeat customer who comes to the shop annually. Ever year, he requests that a dress be made for a doll “that’s sort of like a clown, but not really a clown.” For years, he would burst into tears upon seeing the new creation.
“We asked him why he was crying,” Casas recalled. “And he told us that when he was in Italy on his honeymoon with his wife, he bought her that doll.” The doll came with a book of outfits. Soon after they returned from the trip, she died in a car accident.
“Every year he got a new outfit made for the doll, for his wife,” Casas said.
Over the years, Casas has searched for some kind of apprentice, a new generation to pass the business along to. No such hire ever lasts.
“It’s very hard to train people to work in this,” she said. “You cannot find them. All the work is done by hand, and you have to work hard. Who is going to sit with a needle and sew a whole day? Two days, three days, one week on a teddy bear! No one. We are living in another world now.”
Though Casas has no plans to close her practice, she readily admits the industry is dying in an era where birthday gifts skew less Barbie and more iPads.
“The technology is killing us, really,” she sighed. “You used to buy dolls and teddy bears for children—today, they buy a phone first, or sophisticated, electronic toys. That’s taking business from us.”
That may be so, though dolls will not go down without a fight.
The bad news: in 2017, MarketWatch reported that sales for the behemoth American Girl Doll were down 30 percent since the previous year.
The good news: a study from NPD Group showed that while sales of toys overall declined from 2017 to 2018, dolls experienced a boost of 7 percent.
Though niche, the doll repair industry is surprisingly well-connected. The national Doll Doctors Association runs a newsletter, online database of “hospitals,” and other events. Next week, the Missouri-based United Federation of Doll Clubs will hold its 70th annual convention in Nashville.
Doll hospitals might seem like something straight out of Louisa May Alcott, but the phenomenon boasts an international history. One of the first ever was founded in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1830, and it remains in operation. Another in Melbourne, Australia, has refurbished toys since around 1888 in various storefronts around the city.
Casas works out of a shop she started with her husband, Luis, who passed away in February after a long battle with Alzheimer's. It was Luis who introduced his future wife to the world of doll repair in the late 1960s, when she was a travel agent in her early twenties. The two met in Bogotá, Colombia, and Luis’ mother spent her adult life working in a toy hospital.
“When [Luis] was a kid on his school vacations, he would go to the factory to work,” Casas recalled.
Things were different for Ines, who said she grew up “very poor” with five sisters.
“I didn’t have any toys when I was a little girl,” she recalled. “None. My parents couldn’t buy us any.”
In the mid-1980s, the couple traveled to New York City and searched for work. Friends back home discouraged them from leaving. “They told us that in the U.S., everyone just throws things away and don’t keep them. That’s the concept people have. But my husband said, ‘No, wherever there are children, they must have a doll hospital.’”
He searched Yellow Pages and found New York Doll Hospital, a much-loved Upper East Side institution run by Irving Chais. (Chais’ family began the New York Doll Hospital in 1900; it closed its doors after his death over a hundred years later in 2009.)
Luis met with Chais, who had a bare-bones staff, to put out feelers. One year later, the couple returned to Manhattan for good, arriving on a Sunday and securing jobs at the hospital on Monday. The next week they began working—Luis in the store and Ines back at their apartment—and they stayed on for 23 years.
After Chase’s death, the couple founded their own shop in Secaucus, New Jersey, out of a humble storefront sandwiched in between a hairdresser and pizza shop. Of course, dolls outnumber the staff (Casas, her sister-in-law Alba, and daughter Jeannette) by approximately a thousand to three.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, one chestnut-haired child’s head—and no body—sat upon a desk, waiting to be reunited with its torso.
Two stark naked dolls sat together, holding hands, with adult-sized curlers hanging from their hair. “It’s just like a beauty parlor!” Casas laughed.
Nearby, her daughter Jeanette surveyed a white bin full of tiny plastic babies, which she estimated were around 50 years old.
The industry, the hard work: it's all a labor of a very specialized love.
Lisa Eddins, who runs a doll repair business out of her home in Orange Park, Florida, bluntly told The Daily Beast that, “Doll care is not a lucrative business. Most of the time the doll that I’m fixing isn’t worth the price that I’m charging—but that’s not the goal. The goal is to fix a doll for a child, or an adult child, who still loves it.”
One woman based in Ontario, Canada, who only wanted to go by Dr. Darci, is 56 years old and “semi-retired.” She has worked in doll repair since she encountered a box of toys at an antique show in the 1970s and “felt sorry” for the figurines: “I decided I needed to learn how to fix them.”
“My older customers have commented that there used to be a doll hospital in ever city,” Dr. Darci said. “Now, one lady drives two hours just to see me. I’m the only one in my province. Things used to get saved; now it’s more of a throwaway society.”
Most of the artists who spoke with The Daily Beast ran their businesses out of their home, or as side hustles. “I don’t need the income from it,” Dr. Darci admitted. “It’s just a great time-killer when the Canadian weather gets bad. I sit down, pick up a broken doll, and start fiddling with it.”
Teresa Klein of Milford, Indiana, got into doll repair while caring for young daughters in the mid-to-late 1990s. It was the height of the collectable craze, when Americans were lining up to buy special edition Beanie Babies in hopes of striking it rich after reselling.
“It seems like nowadays, people have smaller houses or aren’t into collecting as much,” Klein mused. “They don’t want to keep whatever collection their parents have.”
Now 55, Klein makes a point to give presentations and lessons at her local doll club. “I want to hand off some of that knowledge to the younger ladies,” she said.
One reason Klein suggests millennials get into the business? “You make people happy,” she offered. “I’ve gotten grabbed and hugged and kissed, and cried on. It is very fulfilling.”
Doll repair workers seem generally affable and friendly. If there is any controversy in what they do it, is the public’s assumption that all dolls are creepy.
“I don’t try to ascribe feelings to plastic or metal,” Madeline Grudens, 54, of the Stony Brook Doll Hospital in New York, said. “A lot of that is just made-up TV stuff. It’s just a piece of wood, and I’ve got to fix it.”
“I don’t feel that they’re creepy,” Dr. Darci insisted. “That’s always bugged me—I see a decrepit doll on eBay and think, ‘Oh, that just needs some fixing.’ But it will be listed as a ‘haunted doll.’”
A woman who goes by the name of Twila Cheeseborough and lives in Punta Gorda, Florida, sells “haunted dolls” on Etsy. She works as a kind of reverse doll doctor, finding vintage toys and turning them into nightmarish figurines with gouged out eyes, bloodied bodies, and decaying teeth.
A former psychic, Twila also believes that dolls can be haunted, but she only sells ones she’s sure contain spirits. Her latest “possessed” project “spoke to her” via a paranormal app, Spirit Box, telling her it was the ghost incarnate of a woman named Ella Mason. A search through newspaper archives showed that a woman with the same name was murdered in Iowa in 1884.
“Since she came into the house, things have happened to me that are unbelievable,” Twila said. “Deaths and the ending of a nine year relationship. I removed her from my house, but she is available for sale.” To anyone who may be interested: Ella Mason costs $599.
The Doll Doctor's Association keeps tabs on all the hospitals still running in the United States; and there are over 50 businesses listed, from Massachusetts to Texas, Washington state and California. (Curiously, western states like Montana, Wyoming, Indiana, Nevada, and Utah are not represented on the map.)
Grudens, from Long Island, said that the rise of 3-D printing has spurred interest in ball-jointed dolls, the ones whose limbs can move in various directions. On YouTube, videos showing before-and-afters of refurbished Barbies and Bratz rack up hundreds of thousands of views.
Next week at the United Federation of Doll Club's “Star Struck” convention, attendees can visit exhibits highlighting “celebrity dolls of stage and screen,” “Japanese fashion dolls,” and over 70 years of souvenirs from the federation's museum archives.
There will also be workshops and seminars on everything from how to make “couture” costumes and art deco figurines.
Klein, from Indiana, has a sense of humor about the macabre connotations of her work. “I have arms, legs, eyeballs in jars,” she laughed. “Fingers, hands, and heads looking at you, oh yeah.”
When her daughters were teenagers and dating, she would bring suitors into her workroom and show them decapitated bodies. “I’d say, ‘As long as you’re nice to my daughter, your head won’t end up here.’”