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Nashoba Publishing/Kent Boynton
Pat Hatch, left, and Roben Campbell, both of Harvard, hold three of the over 150 “Black Rag Dolls” that Pat has collected during the last 34 years. Black Rag Dolls were handmade in America from the 1880s until the 1930s according to Campbell, who has researched them. The Harvard Historical Society will exhibit the collection in mid-April in Still River.
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HARVARD — Antique dealer Patricia “Pat” Hatch has been seeking out artifacts and selling them at her Littleton Road shop for over 30 years.

It’s not all business though. Hatch has amassed a collection of over 150 antique black cloth dolls since 1972.

Her first was bought during a trip to Bolton. She said she came across a century-old, hand-stitched doll that immediately caught her fancy.

“I was very taken by it,” she said. “It’s a work of art, done by women for children, and it’s done with love, which makes it a very special art form.”

Hatch’s dolls, which date from 1930 back to the mid-19th century, have mostly been a private collection, but will be on display come spring at the Harvard Historical Society headquarters in Still River Village.

The opening date has yet to be finalized, but is expected to be March 30 or April 13. A likely exhibit name is “Cut from the Same Cloth.”

The exhibit came about due to the efforts of another woman who was immediately struck by the hand-crafted dolls.

Two years ago, local historian Roben Campbell came to Hatch’s shop, Harvard Antiques, to discuss purchasing a Shaker rug.

During negotiations, Campbell noticed one of the cloth dolls hanging around the shop, which quickly led to the discussion focusing more on dolls than rugs. It was a fascination Campbell found difficult to put into words. She said it needs to be experienced.

“You have no idea what it’s like to look at these dolls. They are so extraordinary,” she said. “I was so smitten by them, I could hardly focus on what I was there for.”

Campbell has spent much of the past 24 months tracking down historic references to the popular 19th-century phenomena.

Hatch called Campbell a leading authority on the subject, a mantle Campbell accepted with an acknowledgment that it’s an understudied portion of American history.

Having authenticated many of Hatch’s dolls, Campbell said most are from the cloth-doll heyday of 1885 to 1905. They carry a rich historic background that includes abolitionism and women’s suffrage, she said.

The dolls have their roots in female anti-slavery societies that existed prior the American Civil War, she said. The societies brought women together in many ways including the production and sale of dolls to promote the anti-slavery agenda.

In this means, she said, one Boston-based group was able to put $65,000 over 25 years toward anti-slavery agitation. After the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery from the Union in 1863, those funds were put toward women’s suffrage and other issues.

Such was the legacy of little dolls cut from dark cloth.

“I think it’s extraordinary,” said Campbell. “It’s a way women had a degree of power. They sewed, they made the money, and they decided what they wanted to spend it on to affect public opinion and support causes they believed in.”

Campbell and Hatch were also quick to distinguish these dolls from a similar-sounding brand of artifacts from yesteryear: the racist caricatures of black stereotypes that have become collectable in some circles.

That trend has nothing in common with the cloth dolls, said Campbell.

“Those caricatures were a commercial enterprise right from the very beginning,” she said. “The cloth dolls were not commercial enterprises. If there’s one thing that ties all of the cloth dolls together, it’s love.”

It was Campbell who suggested Hatch put the collection on display. While they’re obscure to 99 percent of the public, she said they could be educational and enjoyable.

“There’s a theory in folk art that things rise for a generation, and then go into decline and sleep for a generation or two, and then the world is ready to look at them as beautiful objects of art,” she said. “I think these dolls fall right into that.”

Hatch is cautiously hopeful the public will appreciate the collection.

“I hope when people see them they’ll appreciate what wonderful objects they are,” she said. “I bought them because I love them, not to show them off.”

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