Things that Matter: Josephine Bangsberg’s doll

Amy Vach

Branson De Hart was stationed in Manila during the Spanish-American War. While in the in the Philippines, he picked up this small bisque and papier-mache doll as a souvenir. He gave the doll to his 10-year-old niece, Josephine (Mahoney) Bangsberg when he returned to the United States in 1898.

This gift from her uncle created a lifelong love for Josephine. In her free time, she cared for her dolls and helped mend the dolls of friends, then those of her grandchildren. Later in life, Josephine opened a doll hospital called Jo’s Dolls to extend her services to even more young children.

Josephine came across many dolls in her life, but the one from her uncle was always her most cherished. The doll is still wearing the original clothes it wore when Branson found the doll on the streets of Manila. Josephine only undressed the doll once so she could mend the doll’s body.

When the doll was donated to the La Crosse County Historical Society in 1981, it came with a letter describing the doll’s experiences through her own eyes:

“My name is Calamity Jane. It is not my real name. That I do not remember because you see I am very old. I belonged to a little girl who lived in Manila at the turn of the century (1900), and I was always carefully cared for and wrapped in a fine fichu whenever I went to walk.

“We were forced to flee from our home when Dewey landed in Manila in August 1898. In the hurry, my mistress dropped me in the street and I lay unnoticed for a long long time until a fine young Army soldier, Branson De Hart, walking by chanced to see me. He picked me up and slipped me in the bottom of his knapsack, where I rode safely for seven long months.

“When the soldier went to America far across the Pacific, I went with him. He went to a big ranch on the Boulder River, where I was given to a little girl, his niece. She named me Calamity Jane. Many famous people including a man who was later to be the president looked at me and two or three offered much money for me, but my mistress loved me for the sake of her uncle and later for myself.

“I went away to school with her and slept in a little box in the back of a dresser drawer, and then we went to college together. My mistress never undressed me. She let me wear my little lace-trimmed cotton dress that I wore when I left Manila.

“We have always been together: When my mistress married, I was placed in the bottom of her cedar chest. My mistress was very busy and I didn’t get me out very often, but once in a while she took me out and I met her children, but they never played with me nor loved me as my mistress loved me.

“Now my mistress is getting old, her hair is white, but I have never changed. I look as I looked on the day that gay young soldier snatched me from the gutter in far off Manila. I have a place of honor on the mantle of my mistress’ home. You all, I have seen history in the making.”

Artifacts do not always come with detailed histories — sometimes they are simply appreciated and valued for the history they represent. This doll tells an additional story, and is not simply a toy from the 1890s. She is a souvenir from war that was treasured for a lifetime and created a love for dolls that led Josephine to want to care for others’ dolls.

This doll and others can be seen in our online collections database at http://lchshistory.pastperfectonline.com.

Article originally published in the La Crosse Tribune.