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Geneva woman’s collection – about 400 dolls – spans 60 years

Ellen Jo Ljung shows Alaskan dolls, just some that make up her prized collection, at her Geneva home.
Ellen Jo Ljung shows Alaskan dolls, just some that make up her prized collection, at her Geneva home.

BLACKBERRY TOWNSHIP – The dolls in Ellen Jo Ljung’s house gaze at visitors from their glass-covered cabinets, inviting all to appreciate their unique beauty.

There is a Polish doll, probably Medieval, perhaps a warrior because of his sword. He has red puffy sleeves, a bejeweled red hat accented with a feather and a cup fastened to his belt.

He looks as if he is about to step out of the cabinet and give a greeting.

“We bought him in Krakow after my mother died,” Ljung said. “My father was Polish, but he was born in Russia.”

She has two sets of Maasai dolls both bought in Tanzania, a doll from the West Indies, dolls from Russia, from Australia, Austria, France, Sweden, Australia, Japan, Ireland, South Korea, Scotland and England – just to name a few. 

Ljung (pronounced Yoong) has about 400 dolls in a collection her father started 60 years ago. When they bought their house 13 years ago in Blackberry Township, her husband, Don, designed it with the cabinets and their glass fronts and adjustable shelves so that the collection would be well-displayed.

Stunning in its diversity, the collection represents a United Nations of countries and cultures. From three-feet-tall down to near toy-soldier tiny, the dolls occupy shelf after shelf, room after room, documenting a remarkable depth of humanity, history and art.

“Every doll has a story,” Ljung said.

The story of Ljung’s dolls began with her grandmother’s doll, a traditional Polish jester doll. She easily is distinguished from the others as a doll that was played with by a little girl. Made of cloth with a painted ceramic face, its legs are done in a now faded floral pattern and wearing ballet shoes.

Grandma’s doll has a place of honor amid all the others. 

Ljung’s collection includes dolls made by Holocaust survivors, done as part of their therapy to recover from their ordeal. One is a grouping of Jewish musicians clad in long black coats and hats – with bushy beards and ringlets – passionately playing their instruments.

“My father’s family was Jewish and in Poland,” Ljung said. “My father survived because his mother was a widow who married an American who brought them here in 1934.”

Ljung said her personal collection began when she was about 10 years old. Her father brought her an Alaskan doll.

“Alaska became a state in 1959, and I think he bought this in 1957,” Ljung said. “And my mother went ballistic when he brought it home. ‘George, how could you be so extravagant?’ This was an expensive doll, and my dad got in trouble with my mom for it. Later we found the price tag on it, and it was $10. But that was over $80 [back then].”

Her father was vice president and general counsel for the Brundy Corporation, with offices all over the world – which is why he traveled so much, she said.

One doll wears the native garb of Nizhny Novgorod, Ljung said. The communists renamed it Gorky for Soviet writer Maxim Gorky. The doll, which is more than two feet high, wears navy blue native garb trimmed in cream with intricate embroidery and everything covered up to her chin.

“My father was there helping the city modernize,” Ljung said. “My father had to buy her, but they were not allowed to take dollars and we did not have enough rubles. This was March 1993, and we really wanted her. The young woman said, ‘I’ll take dollars, but you have to be surreptitious.’ Moscow was a pretty free-for-all place in March of 1993.”

Ljung added to her collection, as did family, friends and neighbors.

When her son was working in Australia, he added an Australian hiker doll to her collection, complete with tiny corks on strings hanging from his hat – to keep the flies away, of course.

She also has a pair of old Polish dolls given to her by elderly neighbors at their last house. They were dying of cancer.

“They asked if I would give them a home,” Ljung said.

And of course, she did. But Ljung acknowledged that at some point in their retirement, the couple will downsize, and the doll collection will be broken up.

Although individual pieces could be considered museum quality, without documentation – such as where and when they were made – no museum would take them. But Ljung said she collected dolls for 60 years for the sheer joy of having them. Family will take some and others probably will be sold.

“If you care what happens [to your collection], you need to document,” Ljung said. “This was never intended to be an investment. … When it’s time for me to get rid of them – because I don’t think anyone in my family can or will take them all – it’s too bad they aren’t documented to go somewhere.”

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