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A History of Matryoshka Dolls

Updated on August 3, 2017
A row of Matryoshka dolls
A row of Matryoshka dolls | Source

The Origin of Matryoshka Dolls

For more than 100 years Matryoshka dolls have captured the imagination of both adults and children. But what is the story behind their origin? There are differing versions of events regarding how the first Matryoshka doll came into existence.

The first doll set was made in 1890 at a toy company on the Abramtsevo estate in Moscow. In 1870, the estate had been purchased by Savva Mamontov, an industrialist and patron of the arts. He founded an artistic union at the estate, which included some of the best Russian artists of the time. Several workshops were built there, including the Children’s Education Workshop where the first dolls were made.

One story regarding the origin is that Matryoshka dolls were inspired by a doll brought back from Japan by Mamontov’s wife. It is said that one of the artists was intrigued by the doll and decided to make something similar in a Russian style.

Others say that the Matryoshka doll was invented in response to a demand for new products. The first dolls were carved by Vasiliy Zvyozdochkin using a design from Sergey Malyutin, both of whom were artists at Abramtsevo. The memoirs of Vasiliy Zvyozdochkin talk of how he and his colleagues decided that a wooden doll they were creating would be more interesting with other toys hidden inside, but there was no mention of a Japanese doll.

The first Matryoshka doll set
The first Matryoshka doll set | Source

From Early Production to the Present Day

The first Matryoshka doll was called The Rooster Girl. Each doll in the set was decorated with an item relating to peasant life, including a black rooster, a basket and a broom.

The idea of nesting dolls soon became popular. In 1900, they won an award at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. After this, many artists in Russia began making Matryoshka dolls that were shipped around the world.

The doll sets often followed a particular theme, with early examples being from Russian tradition or fairy tales.

Although the Children's Education Workshop closed during the late 1890s, Matryoshka production continued at the new location of Sergiyev Posad. By the 1930s, there was a decline in handmade Matryoshka production, with more emphasis on mass production.

In the early 1990s the individual style of the artist became dominant again, with the new centre for Matryoshka production appearing in Kirov.

There are still several areas in Russia with their own Matryoshka styles, including Sergiyev Posad, Polkhovsky Maidan, Semyonov and Kirov.

Since the original Matryoshka dolls were made, a wider range of themes have been introduced. The early designs showing the dolls in traditional Russian dress remain popular, but the range available now includes Soviet leaders, animals and floral themes. There are also Matryoshka dolls for the four seasons, as well as Christmas and Easter.

Novelty themed dolls are also available, such as characters from children's literature and television shows. Other non-traditional ranges include American Presidents and the British Royal Family.

Matryoshka doll display
Matryoshka doll display | Source

World Record

In 2003, a World Record was set for the largest set of Matryoshka dolls ever made. The set was painted by Youlia Bereznitskaia and consists of 51 pieces. The largest is 53.97cm tall, and the smallest is 0.31cm. When lined up, the pieces measure more than three metres in length!

Buying Matryoshka Dolls

Fortunately, you don’t need to go all the way to Russia to buy Matryoshka dolls. There are several online retailers who import Matryoshka dolls from Russia, including the ones made at the Semyonov factory, which is a major centre for traditional Russian crafts. Some retailers attend craft fairs, so you can see the dolls before buying.

Caution does need to be taken when buying Matryoshka dolls, particularly if you are buying antique ones as they may contain lead paint. Even if you are buying a modern set of dolls, you should ensure that you are buying from a reputable supplier. They may not be suitable gifts for small children due to small parts and the paint content.

If you are feeling artistic, you can even have a go at painting your own. Sets are available as wooden figures with the basic outline pre-printed for you to add the colour. You can also buy plain wooden figurines and add all the detail yourself.

Whether you just want a set for decoration or are starting a collection, there is no shortage of themes to choose from. The popularity of Matryoshka dolls has endured for more than 100 years, and with more and more designs becoming available there is plenty to interest any collector.

Group of Matryoshka dolls
Group of Matryoshka dolls | Source

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    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 5 months ago from California Gold Country

      Charming and fascinating toys. I like the old style best.