The Adventures of a Creeping Baby

A clockwork doll owned by the Clinton County History Center recently journeyed to Dortmund, Germany, where she was exhibited at the DASA Museum.

click to enlarge Creeping Baby holds its passport. - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
Creeping Baby holds its passport.

Kay Fisher, the director/curator of Wilmington, Ohio’s Clinton County History Center, remembers her reaction when she first found a Creeping Baby in an old desk drawer. A clockwork doll, or automaton, in that it has mechanical parts, it was patented and produced in the 19th century.

Its discovery in Wilmington came right around the start of the 21st century, when Fisher was still a relatively new employee of the museum. The Clinton County Historical Society was incorporated in 1948 and had been in its home — an 1835 Greek Revival residence — since 1955. There were a lot of artifacts for her to discover.

“It was in a drawer with some odds and ends and other toys,” she says. “Originally, her face had a wax on it to make her look more lifelike, and I think as time has gone by, it makes her look a little strange right now. She might have looked better (originally). We have said she looks a little creepy.”

This would all be an interesting footnote at best, but the creepy Creeping Baby — as the History Center calls it — has improbably become a celebrity of its collection. As it currently tours Europe, it stars in a website feature called The Adventures of Creeping Baby at clintoncountyhistory.org.

With online research, Fisher discovered “creepy” is an eerily close, semi-correct term for the rosy-cheeked blue-eyed toy, which can be cradled like a kitten. Created as a result of two patents to New York inventors in 1871, it was called a “creeping” doll because, in those days, babies crept on their knees while animals crawled. “By these various improvements, I can produce a creeping-doll natural in its movements and doubly interesting from its happy associations,” inventor George Pemberton Clarke wrote in his patent application.

The main part of the History Center’s Creeping Baby body is material-covered metal gears, operated by a long-lost key. Its arms and legs are made of composite materials and its head is a wax-coated plaster-like material. The parts allowed its head to turn and body to move.

The History Center first put the toy on display in a 2008 exhibit. “I don’t think she made an impact,” Fisher says. “What made more of an impact were the pretty toys. She didn’t draw a lot of attention because she wasn’t (pretty). She’s a unique doll. We had some beautiful porcelain dolls and they got more attention than poor old creepy baby.”

A rarity (especially because it has its original clothing), Creeping Baby came to the attention of the DASA Museum in Dortmund, Germany, which is devoted to exhibitions related to the working world. It wanted to borrow it as an early example of a “man-machine” for a recently ended show called The Robots — an Exhibition on the Relation of Man and Machine. (“Robot” as a term wasn’t coined until the 1920s.)

The History Center agreed. But, since this was a big deal for it, Fisher and collections manager Deborah Edgington wanted to do more. “We started taking pictures and got the idea for The Adventures of Creeping Baby,” Fisher says. They posted those photos to their website.

The site shows their Creeping Baby at the History Center, then with its passport, then with a copy of German for Dummies and with its miniature suitcase.

And they got Philipp Horst, head of temporary exhibits at DASA, to play along. He sent several pictures for the site, including one, presumably digitally enhanced, of Creeping Baby crawling along his city’s soccer field of a stadium jam-packed with 80,000 spectators.

“It was a good opportunity for us to twitter and communicate both the exhibition and our international cooperation,” Horst wrote via email. “All in all, the exhibition was very well received (150,000 visitors) and we are very thankful to have colleagues like Kay to make these things possible.”

There is a bit of a lull right now in website postings. The History Center is waiting for a photo of Creeping Baby’s arrival in Grenada, Spain — The Robots exhibit will be at the Parque de las Ciencias there from Feb. 2, 2017 to Feb. 2, 2018. (Fisher and Edgington sent a Learn Spanish in 7 Days book.)

And then what? “We would like to schedule a homecoming party for her and have some of the pictures of her adventures,” Fisher says. “But that will be in 2018. After that, we will probably let her rest for awhile.”


CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]
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