A Brief History of Troll Dolls
Troll dolls have left an indelible mark on our culture. From movies to games and everywhere in between, they are seemingly everywhere. Over the years, they have become a collector’s item, with some vintage troll dolls selling for several hundred dollars.
Troll dolls seem to make a comeback with each generation. They have gone through many iterations. Miniaturized troll dolls used as pencil toppers were popular with kids in the 1990s. In the 1960s, kids had their own unique version of the frizzy-haired dolls. What hasn’t changed is the troll doll’s enduring presence.
Have you ever wondered how the ubiquitous troll doll got its start? If so, you have landed in the right place. In this article, we are going to take a look at the fascinating history behind troll dolls.
After the War
Millions were left jobless at the end of World War II in 1945. Troll dolls were born out of economic hardship following the war. Thomas Dam, a baker from Gjøl, Denmark, saw his income disappear when the flour factory where he worked closed. Dam took on odd jobs to support his family during this time.
When Dam had free time, he would sit by the fireplace carving wood. Dam enjoyed carving creatures out of the wood to make his kids laugh. After a while, his wife convinced him to try selling his creations. When Dam traveled to a nearby city to sell the dolls, he found his first success. Dam quickly sold all of his dolls.
Dam’s dolls began to grow in popularity, with people placing orders for customized dolls. Dam’s reputation expanded beyond Denmark, and in 1956 a Swedish department store contracted him to sculpt a large version of Santa Claus. To complement his Santa Claus sculpture, Dam created a window display with tiny dolls.
When the public saw the dolls, the department store was inundated with requests for the dolls. Dam hurried to complete the orders. His dolls once again sold out, this time before Christmas. Because the original dolls were hand-carved, they were expensive and took a lot of time to make. All of these fateful events led Dam down the path of becoming a full-time toy designer.
Dan’s time was consumed, making what would later become the troll dolls that are so beloved today. The original trolls dolls were made of wood, but as demand increased, Dam began making them from rubber. He streamlined the process of making the dolls. He named his company Dam Things.
Damn opened a small factory in 1959 to produce the dolls. His new method of making the dolls was a rubber body stuffed with wood shavings. Dam was selling over 10,000 dolls a year in Denmark by the end of the 1950s. It didn’t take long for Dam’s dolls to become known internationally.
By 1962, Dam had established factories internationally, from Florida to New Zealand. At the time, troll dolls ranged in price from 65 cents to $5.95 per doll. Like most dolls, troll dolls came with doll clothes and accessories at an additional cost. An entire line of merchandise grew out of the Troll dolls, including a prehistoric model home with troll decor and a troll village playset.
Troll dolls even made an appearance at the White House when the first woman to complete a solo transatlantic flight, Betty Miller, brought her Troll doll when she met President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Troll dolls continued their meteoric rise, with over one million dolls selling in the US in 1964.
In fairytales, trolls have never been known for their beauty. Most people find them downright ugly. They commonly live under bridges or in the mountains in Scandinavian folklore. Wherever they call home, their ugliness is an immutable characteristic. The ugliness is what makes them unique. We can’t take our eyes off of them.
Trolls are also scary. According to Scandinavian tradition, trolls were mean, gigantic, flesh-eating creatures that needed to be avoided. As trolls evolved, they lost some of their size but not their vicious behavior. They were known for kidnapping babies and harassed innocent women. Only hearing their own name or sunlight could bring an end to their terror.
Dam changed all of this with his troll doll creations. He somehow transformed this mythically hideous figure into something adorable that children and adults loved. In Scandinavian culture, if you’re laughing, nothing bad can happen to you. Dam looked at his trolls as good luck charms since their appearance would keep people laughing.
Dam thought his troll dolls were so ugly one couldn’t help but laugh. The troll dolls are hideous in an appealing way with their pot bellies and wide heads. They have a bow-legged stance and pointy ears. As if that wasn’t enough, the troll dolls have a huge smile showing off their toothless mouth. Yet their wide eyes and outstretched arms are full of affection.
Dam was somehow able to combine just the right amount of ugliness with cuteness to make troll dolls irresistible.
1964: The Troll Craze Hits America
Although Dam started producing Dam Trolls in 1956, trolls didn’t truly take off in the United States until the 1960s. In the United States, troll dolls were sold under the Uneeda Wishniks brand. Barbie was the only doll that outsold the trolls. The United States Toy Association named Dam Trolls the toy of the year in 1963.
The trolls seemed to land on American shores at the right time. With their frizzy hair sticking up straight from their heads, they embodied the United States’ hippy movement at the time. Not only hippies fell in love with the troll doll. First Lady Ladybird Johnson was a big fan. College girls fell for the adorable trolls.
Newsweek magazine declared the trolls were replacing rabbits’ feet as the world’s most popular good luck charm. Kids were encouraged to rub the troll’s colorful hair for good luck. People lined up to credit these dolls with their success, including a St. Louis lawyer who said they’d helped him triple his business and a swim team that won ten swim meets in a row.
The troll dolls record sales led the company to buy Iceland’s entire sheepskin harvest for use as the doll’s hair. Children loved troll dolls. They were a form of scary yet harmless fun. The troll’s features were so exaggerated they were viewed as cute.
At the height of the troll craze, Americans were collectively spending $100,000 per month on the dolls.
Troll Doll Knock-Offs
Although Dam was the creative genius behind the troll dolls, trouble appeared once they expanded beyond Denmark. A copyright issue landed the troll dolls in the public domain in 1965. Thus, anyone could produce knock-offs of the doll without facing any legal penalties. Companies took advantage of the ruling against Dam to create troll merchandise.
Companies began marketing and selling merchandising related to Dam’s trolls. There were key chains, blankets, t-shirts, blankets, and much more sold with the image that Dam had worked so hard to create. Since the troll doll concept was in the public domain, Dam received very little of the billions generated from sales based on his creation.
Dam returned to Denmark to protect what was left of his creation, but the loss of copyright severely strained his business. The troll craze wouldn’t last forever. Troll dolls seemed to disappear from the scene just as quickly as they had arrived.
The Trolls Make a Comeback
By the 1970s, nobody was talking about Dam’s troll dolls. There would be little talk about the trolls for the next two decades. Troll dolls didn’t begin their comeback until 1983 when they made an appearance at the New York Toy Fair. This time they were officially-licensed Dam troll dolls. They were designed to be collector’s items.
The 1990s ushered in a new troll craze. The United States Toy Association named the troll dolls Toy of the Year for a second time. Sales went through the rough. Troll dolls and related merchandise sales were over $700 million in 1992 alone. Dam still wasn’t seeing much of the profits because of all the knock offs.
However, in 2003, Dam’s family was finally able to reclaim the United States copyright. The family was paid damages, but Thomas Dam was not alive to witness the victory. He had passed away fourteen years earlier.
The history behind the successful troll dolls is a remarkable story. In the aftermath of World War II, an unemployed baker went on to build an empire based on his woodworking talent. Thomas Dam created an iconic doll using a mix of Scandanavian folklore and his own creative genius to make a doll that was both ugly and undeniably adorable.
Children and adults worldwide fell in love with Dam’s troll dolls. They became many people’s good luck, charms. These dolls are now a collector’s item. They have starred in movies. Troll dolls have been etched into our culture. Now it’s time to wait for the next troll doll craze. It could be right around the corner.