Nesting Dolls – A Little History, A Lot of Fun!

“Baby Babushka!” These were nonsense words used when I was little, for no other reason than they were fun to say, as my mother wrapped my head in yet another embarrassingly ugly scarf designed to protect me from the cold! Babushka is the Russian word for “grandmother”. Grandmothers in Russia traditionally wore colorful scarves tied under their chins to ward off the cold Russian winds. I later learned that the word “Babushka” also sometimes referred to the traditional Russian souvenir… the Nesting Doll らぶどーる . The irony in all of this is that little did I realize that many years later, I would be an online retailer selling these darling babushkas! The cute Nesting Dolls… not the ugly scarves!

In old Russia, a popular girl’s name was “Matryoshka”. Scholars will tell you that this name has a Latin root “mater” meaning “Mother”. Eventually this name became associated with a peasant mother who was very healthy and had a portly figure and a large number of children. Many nesting dolls depict just such a woman with many children tucked away (nesting) inside.

The very first Russian nesting doll was created in 1890 and produced by Save Mamontov, an industrialist and patron of the arts, on his estate in Abramtsevo in Moscow. Nesting dolls were well known in various places, such as Japan earlier than this however. But the Russians perfected the art and made nesting dolls a profitable business.

Traditionally, the nesting doll design consists of a Russian woman dressed in typical Russian dress complete with a scarf (babushka baby!) on her head. Each doll was almost identical to one another and the number of dolls ranged in sets from 5 to 30. Some custom-made sets contained many more. The sets sometimes formed a theme, such as the classic sets of Russian Leaders, with the earlier leaders nested inside.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a professional artist, Sergei Maliutin and a wooden doll turner, Vassiliy Zviozdochkin, designed and created a nesting doll that resembled actual inhabitants of the Russian town, Sergiev Posad. Sergiev Posad was a colorful, truly Russian town full of persons from all different walks of life; merchants, monks, pilgrims, artists and craftsman. Maliutin depicted realistic looking dolls whose heads were greatly enlarged showing off the faces of the townspeople.

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