Doll Hospital Mends Broken Toys; Restores Childhood Treasures, Memories

The owners of Southold doll hospital repair broken dolls and keep childhood memories intact for future generations.

When Jan Davis was a little girl, she had only one doll. And whenever that doll cracked, her mother would put a Band-Aid on it, to fix it right up.

Davis said maybe that's why today, she has spent decades repairing broken dolls and childhood dreams; she and her husband of 37 years, Walter, run one of the only doll hospitals left in New York, and the country.

They work side by side at the business, Jan Davis Antiques/The Long Island Doll Hospital, located on Main Road in Southold, that they started over 30 years ago.

Originally an antiques dealer, Davis said she was also a doll collector for many years. She became interested in doll repair when some of her own dolls were broken and she was unhappy with how they were restored.

"I thought, 'I can do better than this,'" Davis said. She then took a correspondence course to learn the trade and later opened the Long Island Doll Hospital.

The business, located in an 1856 building that was once a general store belonging to the Williams family, has been located at its Southold site for over three decades, as Davis and her husband nursed broken dolls back to their former glory.

The process is sometimes painstaking — restoring a Shirley Temple doll's curls to its "original set" takes hours, not to mention the tiniest of curlers — with cracks fixed, lips colored, and tiny broken fingers recreated.

But the gift to customers who find their childhood dolls, and memories, whole again, she said, is priceless.

"Dolls are very personal to children," she said. "They take them to bed. They whisper to them. They tell them their secrets."

Her work gives Davis infinite satisfaction, as she helps her customers restore cherished childhood memories. "You cannot put a monetary price on sentimental value," she said. "It's invaluable."

Davis said she enjoys working with her husband. "Walter was once a mounted police officer in New York City. Now he's playing with dolls and fixing them," she laughed.

As she mends the broken dolls, Davis is careful not to transform them into something that looks new and unrecognizable.

"They have to look played with," she said. She won't color over a doll's painted nails, she said, because that's a part of a child's life, and a doll's unique history.

Or sometimes, stitching will remain as it has always been, because a customer's mother, now gone, sewed the doll herself, a precious link to the past.

"You have to be careful not to erase the memories," she said. 

Her work, Davis says, is filled with importance and meaning, touching lives and preserving pasts. When they see their restored dolls, she said, many customers cry.

Davis' favorite dolls are porcelain character dolls, but the hospital repairs all kinds, as well as stuffed animals, including Steiff plush toys from Germany. The Steiff company recommends Davis' doll hospital on their website.

Dolls are sent from all over the United States to Southold for repair, Davis said. But sometimes it's not easy for a customer to let a precious doll go, even for repairs.

One customer, she said, wrote two heartfelt letters, thanking Davis for repairing her childhood stuffed animal, Simba, which had lost an eye; she enclosed a photo of her restored treasure, safely home.

"I so hesitated sending him anywhere," she wrote. "Thank you again for repairing an important part of my childhood."

The stories, both Davis and her husband said, linger long after the dolls have gone home.

One woman brought in her elderly mother's doll for repair; another man plucked the worn childhood favorite of his wife from the trash and had it restored as a surprise Christmas gift.

One memorable story involved a man who had loved the actress Mary Hartline in the past; when his wife spotted a Mary Hartline doll in the store, she whispered to Davis to hold it so that she could surprise him with it, at Christmas.

The couple, who made a pact to travel one month a year when they married, have seen the world and have a home in Florida. But a love of the joy they bring to their clients — and the fact that doll restoration is a rare art in today's world — keeps them deeply rooted at their Southold doll hospital.

"Whenever we think about retiring, our customers say, 'You can't retire."

Davis and her husband bond with many of those who bring their dolls. "You feel close to them," she said. "There's so much going on in the world right now that's not so good — but there's so much good here. I get to hear a lot of wonderful stories."

Audrey Stonemetz September 23, 2013 at 03:39 PM
Jan repaired one of my dolls ! She had to re string her! Doll was my mother in laws doll and is beautiful she is 1929 or 1930 ! A job well done Jan! Thank you!


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