Mystery of the “Snake Charmer” Automaton

Every once in a great while a wonderful coincidence occurs that captures your imagination and sends you off on an almost manic search for as much information as you can get. Such was the case when I dove into the history of a 19 century automaton doll called the “Snake Charmer.”

First a little background

One of my favorite movies growing up – one that my mother and I watched each and every Christmas – is the classic Alistair Sims 1951 version of Scrooge, based on the Charles Dickens classic tale A Christmas Carol. Most people are familiar with the basic story line behind this famous novella. Old Scrooge is a money grubbing money lender. He is led by supernatural forces to face the horrible conditions of poor people living in 19th century England, exemplified by the iconic character Tiny Tim. The 10-11 year old is the lame son of Scrooge’s ever suffering clerk. Bob Cratchitt cannot afford to pay for the life saving surgery his son needs on the salary paid by the miserly Scrooge.

In response to two solicitations for a donation to “ feed the poor, …at this time of year when want is so keenly felt,” Scrooge famously declares, “”Are there no prisons Are there no workhouses? “

In an poignant scene about 7 minutes into the movie Tiny Tim is watching a number of automaton dolls displayed in a toy shop window on Christmas Eve. He is looking longingly at the wonderful toys including a large model ship . The movie pans across the moving figures including a tall, scantily clad middle eastern woman blowing a small horn, a stern jester and a large laughing clown in a top hat. The exotic woman doll I came to discover is called the “Snake Charmer”. She seems to be holding a long staff which is actually a long snake. In addition to undulating the “snake” to and fro, she also raises her hand to blow a horn and pivots her head to look up at the other automated dolls. It is an amazing piece of artistry and -as it turns out – a classic automaton.

Snake Charmers as depicted in 1951 movie version of Scrooge.

The movie scene ends when Tim is downcast when the coveted model ship is removed – apparently purchased by a customer. The large automated laughing boy seems to be laughing at Tim’s disappointment but the young boy laughs again at the antics of the clowns. This has always been one of my favorite scenes in the movie…not only because I was fascinated with the automatons, especially the “Snake Charmer, but also how the poignant scene captures in a few short minutes the point of Dickens’s work. AND it was some 30 years before I developed a love for and starting collecting dolls (another serendipity story for another day!)

On to the Snake Charmer

While researching a doll history some months ago I was browsing through the excellent articles published in the second volume of a wonderful resource book Spinning Wheels Complete Book of Dolls. For those of you who may not be familiar with Spinning Wheels it is one of the best sources for in depth information about dolls in general including patent info and specific historical info on many vintage and antique dolls…the kind of details not found in the usual doll compilations. There on page 257 was a black and white picture of a woman automaton..the “Snake Charmer !” It was one of two illustrations for Mary Hillier’s in depth article in the book entitled The Lure of Automatons.

At first I doubted my eyes. While the doll illustrated with the article was slightly different than than the one in the movie, the costume, face, hair staff, horn and short dress were very similar (as you will see in the pictures below. ) While the picture in the Spinning Wheels book is a bit unclear, the scanty outfit looks very much like the costume of the the doll in the movie The second picture with Hillier’s article is entitled the Snake Dancer” and according some sources is attributed to the same creators as the Snake Charmer in Hilliers article. In her article, Hillier attributes the creation of the Snake Charmer as a French toy maker named Ernst Decamps. Decamps fashioned his Snake-Charmer after his father in law and partner, Jean Roullet’s Snake Dancer. The partnership was formed between Roullet and Decamps in 1889 but in 1906 Ernst Decamps became head of their firm and it is his son Gaston who is credited with the design of yet another version of the Snake Charmer… retaining the iconic features of a long snake, a horn and a pivoting head.

After this it becomes a little murkier as to who is responsible for additional versions, i.e. revised the costume and face of the variations to the original Gaston version. For example, the famed doll auctioneer, Theriaults had a version of the snake charmer included in their May 2004 published auction catalog. Notice how the dress is longer…the face and hair are different and the snake takes on a more undulating posture.

A partial review of Theriault’s description of the Snake Charmer reveals how complex and detailed the figure was designed . “An exotically sculpted woman of gesso and composition with rich amber-brown complexion,brown glass eyes,closed mouth,portrait- like features,and waist-length brunette hair…slightly bent right knee,and a separate plate above the bosom allowing for breathing. Movements: her head moves to and fro in a sensuous circular motion,her upper right arm pivots,bringing the trumpet toward her mouth; her lower left arm pivots which appears to bring the snake to life; the snake lifts his head,then lowers it as if charmed; her bosom lifts up and down as though she is breathing. “

The catalog entry goes on to speculate that the inspiration for the automaton as being the French novelist Colette who, in about 1905 performed as the infamous Salome in Paris theatres -costumed in a sensuous bare-breasted manner that closely resembles Roullet & Decamps’ Snake Charmer. In this exotic vein the Decamps figure was designed to be a nude, but “….Madame Decamps opposed this on moral grounds. This explains why the body figure is fully sculpted rather than an unfinished armature form designed to be covered by a costume as was the norm; and,in fact, it is the only automaton so made.”

Another probably more credible inspiration was the performance of Nala Damajanti …the stage name of a late 19th-century snake charmer who toured with P.T. Barnum’s circus and performed at the famed Folis Bergere in Paris.

A 1996 catalog of London’s Sothebys auction house features a Snake Charmer…attributed to circa 1900: “Papier-mache head, glass eyes, key wind mechanism, 90cm high.”


An in depth search on the world wide web also reveals other “snake charmers”…almost always attributed to one of the Decamps men of Roullet & Decamps, A good look at these variations reveal different faces, dresses, and positions of the snake, which may be as the snake moves with the motion of the head and arms.

Titled “Zulma, The Snake-Charmer”, this doll pictured below was listed in a catalog for an auction in Portugal , VERITAS Art Auctioneers in Lisbon, Portugal This description attributes this Snake-Charmer to Jules’ grandson Gaston Decamps… again a very different rendition of the dancer with a snake.

The Snake Charmer pictured below was found in a Russian Museum web site…also attributing the dolls creation to Gaston Decamps. The website pictures resembles the auction catalog photographs of the doll offered by the Veritas Art Auctioneers in Lisbon Portugal above.

La Gazette Drourot featured a snake charmer or La Charmeuse de serpent up for auction in a French auction house, Hotel Drouot sometime in 2018 . Notice the very different costume. I

In 1994 a French documentary film shown at the Museum of Neuilly / Seine ‘s Mesnil-le Roi film festival won the first documentary prize . The film showed the motions of a variety of automatons including a short clip of the Snake-Charmer displayed at the museum. The short was presented by Lutèce Créations, the European specialist in music boxes and automatons.

Here is the link and time check if you would like to see the motion in the YouTube video:


So here we have at least five versions of the French made Snake Charmers, with decidedly different faces, dresses, “snakes” and mounts. All seem to have similar movements. One interesting speculation by a French auction site *La Gazette Drouot* is that the 1897nude sculpture by Josef Wind was the inspiration created in 1887. While the pose of the figure is the same, the lack of any costuming or a horn perhaps discouraged the French toy maker from marketing a nude. Also Decamps and company wanted to make a musical automaton for which some form of musical instrument was prerequisite.

In keeping with the other toys longingly viewed by Tiny Tim, the Snake Charmer dolls were really high end at the time they were made…and have retained their value today…only about 15 survive in private collections. The one at Theriaults sold in 2004 for $51000. A second lot offered by Theriaults in 2007- which appears to be very similar to the one sold some three years earlier (perhaps a re-sale?) realized an astounding $140,000.

If any doll collectors out there may own or know who owns one of the antique Snake Charmers or have any other information or pictures of this wonderful automaton, you’re welcome to contact me.

If you access the links at each picture in this article you can get some close-ups which illustrates the differences among these variations of the Snake-Charmer .

Also I am offering at cost a copy of my doll history book, Through Their Eyes: the American Doll’s View of History. Illustrated with both B&W and colored pictures, this book documents the relationship between the American doll and major events in the United States between the 18th through early 20th century. Contact me at to order a copy.


Two of these dolls need repair and third to help reduce my collection.

Hard plastic no markings…nice outfit…detached head

Antique wax head, cloth body leather hands. Head is detached and badly chipped

Hand crafted reproduction Bleuette cast in french chocolate bisque slip; hand made dress; doll is in good condition

Bleutte reproduction

Again make a request in comments and I will forward my email address to get your mailing address (shipping is free)
In addition, I do have dolls and doll material on Listia (a bartering site) under the name “revlondoll”

Newly Added Free Stuff

Below are pictures :

–body with cloth body…porcelain arms/hands and legs/feet.

–more wigs too many to pictures…will send 4 randomly selected ( if you have a specific request forcolor or size I will try …add to the comments.)

–pop armature for larger (18″ & above)

Again make a request in comments and I will forward my email address to get your mailing address (shipping is free)
In addition, I do have dolls and doll material on Listia (a bartering site) under the name “revlondoll”



Girl with Doll by Varnek Tomilova (Russian artist early 19th century)

So much has happened in the doll world since I posted 3 YEARS AGO!

Sadly some of the major changes are not happy ones…long time doll museums closed, doll shops have gone out of business and many doll clubs disbanded…including the one I belonged to here in New York state. But some developments have come in to fill the void. The proliferation of web sites dedicated to the sale and exchange of information about dolls have sky rocketed. Look at the rising popularity of the contemporary BJD …the ball jointed doll. I have to smile when I read a blog or hear a doll lover extoll the great technological advances of modern doll articulation!!

The development of the “ball joint” goes back to the mid 19th century, especially by European doll makers. The Schoenhut doll of PA is one of the premier examples of these early BJD’s. Perhaps the success of the new BJD’ s will spark renewed interest in dolls of all kinds and eras and will usher in a ” doll renaissance.”

In keeping with latest developments, I am going to “re-energize” this WordPress site.
Catskill will include a wide range of doll topics contained within these four categories:

Doll Collecting

Doll Projects



The third category will highlight dolls, books and accessories I am offering for sale and donation to doll lovers, groups and organizations which encourage and promote the exchange of information about dolls.

Each week I will post some nuggets of doll wisdom to help advance the “renaissance of dolls”.

Comments are welcome!

More Books Plus Wigs

More free books..shipping .free for two books from this and prior post

Antique Collector’s Dolls
Series 1
Patricia R. Rose

Antique Collector’s Dolls
Series 2
Patricia R. Rose

Treasury of German Dolls
Lydia Richter

5 doll wigs (new)

(send me email in comments along with selection)

Free Doll Books

My book shelves are just too crowded! After twenty years of collecting and researching the history of dolls, I am ready to part with some of my books.

Below is a list of available books free of charge….and will be adding more next week *

The ABC’s of doll collecting

author: John C Schweitzer

The Collector’s Book of Dolls
Author: Brenda Gerwat-Clark

The Collectors Book of Dolls and Dolls’ Houses
Author: Roger Baker

The Collector’s Guide to Dolls
Author: Kerry Taylor

Author: Antonia Fraser

.Madame Alexander 14 Girl Victorian Doll Patterns
Author: Martha Pullen

*Please limit your choice to 2 books for free shipping. More than three books, I will have to ask for media shipping.

For Sale/Donations

Dolls listed in these posts are from my personal collection and are being offered either for sale or donation to a group or organization which promotes and supports doll collecting. Email me your choices and I will contact you to get an address. Shipping is free.

Restoring a Schoenhut Wood Doll

While researching the history of early American dolls for my book, Through Their Eyes – The American Doll’s View of History* , I came upon the story of the early wooden dolls. While most of the American made wood dolls came from New Engand, like the Joel Ellis and Mason & Taylor and other jointed wood dolls, it was the large multi-jointed wooden dolls made by Albert Schoenhut in Philadelphia PA that really drew my attention.

In 1872 Schoenhut established the A. Schoenhut Company and made toys and pianos. In July 1909 Schoenbut applied for a patent for a jointed figure, which was the basis for his spring loaded joints of the now famous Schoenhut doll. While the bodies were wood, the heads were either machine carved wood or molded composition. Eyes were both inset and indaglio. The elder Schoenhut died in 1912, a year after his now famous doll appeared. His son, Harry E. Schoenhut continued the manufacture of the doll until around 1924 when Japanese manufactured dolls forced many American and European doll companies out of business.

I was determined to have a Schoenhut in my collection, but I soon learned that they are rather costly, ranging from $150 to $600 and even more depending on condition. There was no shortage of Schoenhuts for sale online, most were out of my price range until I found a seller that was offering one in pretty bad condition. The paint had almost all worn off the head and some of the features like the nose and lips were chipped away. This is not surprising as most the Schoenhut doll heads were composition. Fortunately the body was not bad although one lower limb had broken off.

In a way the broken leg gave me a glimpse into the leg joint of the doll…otherwise all the other joints including the feet, hands, elbows, shoulders were really tight (See photos below for the original condition of the doll.)

Normally I like to do minimal restoration on dolls, but this poor doll really needed a makeover. Shown below are the various steps I took to restore my Schoenhut…using various tricks I have learned over the years!

Original condition of the Schoenhut showing the badly worn head and broken leg.

schoenh 008

Paint badly chipped from composition head

First, with a damp cloth, I removed the surface dirt…no soap or solvent…just water.

Next I chipped away the rest of the paint from the head. Using medium grade sandpaper I smoothed some of the rough spots…on both the fully exposed head and some areas on the body.

Using a water based wood filler, I re-sculpted the lips and lower nose area. Using a dremel with a very small grinding head I cleaned out the eye area, reshaping the eye ball and socket.

schoenh 017

Next I made a slurry from the wood filler and “painted” the entire head…filling in all the small cracks and fissures. I sanded the head again and applied another coat of slurry. I let this dry overnight to make sure the wood filler was completely dry.

Next I applied a coat of gesso…used by artists to prepare their canvases. Gesso also fills in small cracks. Time for a coat of paint. I used a flesh tone acrylic, but here’s a tip. Most regular acrylics will change color as they dry. The acrylics used to paint glass and metal surfaces however dry true to color. And while they cost a little more, it is worth it as not only does the color dry true, but it also flows on evenly and brush lines are nearly invisible. One more check for any rough spots and then a second coat of paint.

schoenh 019

As the original paint was so “oranged” I decided to paint the entire body. Note I attached a velcro “splint” after inserting a rod to hold the two parts of the leg together.   While the leg will not bend at the joint, the doll will stand as it designed to do.

schoen 004

Using a picture I downloaded from on-line, I copied the eye features, and lip shape. The teeth is a line of white too small to sculpt, but visible. I sealed the entire body and head with a satin acrylic, using a gloss for the eyes.

schoen 003

Next the wig and clothes…I know my restoration is very self evident, but as I noted above, the doll was in really poor condition and I am more interested in having a doll that’s nice to look at than a really beat up ugly one.

Here is my finished Schoenhut

…along with a surprise I got for Mother’s Day…a second Schoenhut!

Now my 2 Schoenhuts stand side by side…a wish doubly fulfilled!

schoen 036

*My book, Through Their Eyes – the American Doll’s View of History can be ordered directly from me by sending $19.95  to Lynn Nalven, Mountain Artisans, LLC, PO Box 64, Obernburg, NY 12767.  Shipping is free

My Sock Snowman

snowman 023

There are many instructions on the Internet of how to make a “snowman” from a sock. I found the best kind of sock is a women’s ankle sock for the snowman and children’s colorful sock for cap & scarf.

You will also need beads for eyes and nose, string or heavy thread, rice ( two 1 lb. Bags will make three snowmen) glue and any other stickers or decoration you like.

Here is my version of the “sock snowman”

  1. Cut the top of an ankle sock off evenly across the top.
  2. Fill the sock 1” from the top. Gather the top and using a heavy thread tie off as shown in picture.
  3. Tie around the middle of the sock to make the top and bottom of the snowman.
  4. Use small black and orange beads for eyes and nose…glue on face. You can anchor the beads and trims with straight pins

Next make a cap & scarf:

  1. Cut the top off a child’s decorative ankle sock…cut even across. Tuck under the edge and fold up to make a cap.
  2. Cut the other sock along the sides, leaving the toe fold. This will make a matching scarf.
  3. Glue buttons onto the bottom part of snowman.
  4. Add pompoms or other decorationssnowman 013snowman 014snowman 016snowman 015snowman 017snowman 019snowman 020snowman 021snowman 022snowman 025

In August of this year I launched my doll history,  entitled  Through their Eyes – The American Doll’s View of History.

By weaving the story of the American doll with descriptions of historical events of the day, I try to show how various social, economic and cultural factors influenced the development the doll from its early beginnings in the American northeast to a thriving industry in the mid-twentieth century. It is fascinating to see how the doll, as plaything, grew in popularity and turned into such a cultural phenomenon.

Here is a quote from the Preface:

This not just a history of dolls. This is history as seen through the eyes of the doll, metaphorically speaking of course. Dolls cannot really see! But imagine if they could! What would they tell us they saw throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries in America?

This 135 page book is illustrated with color and black&white pictures and photographs and would be appropriate for young adults as well as adult readers.

For price and order details, please contact me via this website or email me at  Mention my site Catskill Dolls for a discount .front cover final