Most charming with their rosy cheeks and welcoming eyes, the “Made in Greece” dolls of Near East Industries are arguably some of the most beautiful ever designed. A project with philanthropic roots, the Near East Industries doll collection was handmade in the 1930s and 40s by local artisans in Athens, under the auspices of the Near East Foundation, which provided aid to Balkan refugees.
“Many had survived deportations and massacres only to find themselves in a new country with no means of self-support,” says Near East Foundation Director of Partnerships and Philanthropy Andrea Crowly. “The women had few obviously marketable skills, but they carried an incredible knowledge of traditional craftsmanship.”
Garbed in regional attire ranging from the mainland to the islands, these dolls are a tribute to the diversity of Greek traditions. Standing approximately 8 inches tall, the charismatic Near East Industries dolls were hand-painted and dressed by refugee women. Sometimes, the dolls came tagged with their name and costume origin.
The collection includes dolls dressed in traditional Greek attire, but also dolls donning costumes from Israel, Turkey, Croatia, Serbia, and Albania. Members of the collection include Rebecca, a Christian from Israel, Socrates and Aphrodite of Attica, Phrosos of Corfu, and Hassan of Albania, among others.
The dolls made their way to the U.S. by route of Kimport Company, an Independence, Missouri-based toy distributor that offered in its “Doll Talk” catalog, a variety of handcrafted dolls from around the world. In collaboration with Near East Industries, Kimport imported several of these lovely dolls, making an exception to their rule to sell dolls exclusively made in the country they represented. Sold for some $4.00 a piece - costly for the 1930s and 40s - these dolls were a collector’s item, and surely, one of a kind.
NEAR EAST RELIEF
At the turn of the century, Near East Relief used the then new medium of film and photography to paint a picture of refugee struggles, one that paved the way for international philanthropy. With its varied efforts, the organization is estimated to have saved over 1 million lives and countless orphaned children of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek descent, who had been deported, displaced, or had fled from starvation and execution.
Part of Near East Relief, Near East Industries was founded in 1915 and employed women across Greece, Armenia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Lebanon. The organization provided work for refugees in exchange for assistance from the Near East Relief. The sale of dolls and other handicrafts was a way to help fund the organization and its efforts. In 1930, the organization changed its name to Near East Foundation.
“As we responded to the genocide in 1915 providing relief for thousands of people, most notably orphaned children, the founders realized that they needed to develop programs to support these individuals’ livelihoods in the long-term as well,” Crowly says. “Our programs involved education and training children and adults with marketable skills to earn a living.”
_____________________________ WORDS + PHOTOS: Portes Magazine