WENHAM -- The French bébés were the dolls of my childhood dreams, with their cherubic faces framed by soft ringlets, creamy skin, rosy cheeks, and huge, haunting, almond-shaped eyes. Made in France in the late 1800s, they wore elaborate dresses of silk and brocade, accessorized with bonnets, gloves, and jewelry.
These dolls are among 5,000 in the collection of the Wenham Museum, a gem hidden in this North Shore town; at any given time some 1,000 are on display. Exhibits trace the great variety of dolls ranging from cloth playthings meant to be dragged to the playground (think Raggedy Ann) to porcelain models designed to sit on a shelf. It is interesting to see how the figures evolved from women to children to babies; though there are a few boy dolls, the vast majority are female.
The dolls and dollhouses are almost certain to take many women back to childhood, and their male peers are likely to be equally transported by the museum's extensive collection of model trains.
The most unusual doll has to be the likeness of Julia Ward Howe. The doll was fashioned around 1900 from a portrait for which the composer of the ''Battle Hymn of the Republic" posed when she was 87; her wrinkled face is a stark contrast to the youthful appearance of the rest of the museum's exhibit.
A separate gallery houses the International Doll Collection, amassed by a publicity-savvy Wenham native who used it to raise money for charity. Elizabeth Richards Horton set out to collect a doll from each inhabited country in the world. By 1900, the collection included some 1,000 dolls, including many donated by European royalty. Some 800 of these survived the ravages of time and storage and are in the museum's collection. They include Native American dolls in authentic dress, and dolls from India, Japan, Portugal, Greece, Surinam, and Barbados. The ethnic facial features and striking costumes of these dolls are a refreshing change from the idealized European faces of the main collection. Among the more ingenious creations are dolls with heads made of cashew or hickory nuts, dolls carved from peach pits, and dolls made from kelp, coconut, wishbones, and even a dried apple.
The downstairs train room features six working layouts, including miniatures of the Salem waterfront, the House of the Seven Gables, and replicas of other North Shore locations. Watching the sturdy cars move relentlessly along the tracks, over hills, through crossings, and in and out of tunnels, is mesmerizing.
The museum opened in 1922, when a group of women from the Wenham Village Improvement Society mounted an effort to save the attached Claflin-Richards House, which dates from 1690, said Emily Fertik, the museum's executive director. Today, the house interprets four periods of family life, from 1690 to 1850, and reveals a direct connection between its last occupant and the stunning doll collection next door. Tours are available on request.
Along with terrific collections of dolls and model trains and a historic house, the museum offers changing exhibits. ''Beavers: Creatures of Industry" takes a comprehensive look at this rodent, its history, habitats, historic role in fur trading, and the modern-day effects of beaver dams on water resources, particularly in the Ipswich River watershed. The exhibit, which continues through June 18, is child friendly but still provides adults food for thought.
The same women's organization that saved the Claflin-Richards House also launched the Wenham Tea House across the street in 1915 and operates it to this day. It's a pleasant place for lunch or tea before or after your visit to the museum.
Contact Ellen Albanese at firstname.lastname@example.org.