Art: Mermaid’s Doll at Wenham Museum, circa 1890

By |May 25th, 2018|Country: |


According to the sign in the museum, this is a specific kind of novelty dolls made in Australia in late 19th century from dried sting rays. Stuffed with stew, reinforced with wire and given glass bead eyes, they were made to resemble funny little figures.

I have looked online and could not find any more dolls of the kind. However, I discovered something called “Jenny Haniver”, a very similar concept. Originating in the ports of 16th century Antwerp and made by sailors to sell to tourists, Jenny Hanivers were mummified sting ray remains modeled to resemble devils or monsters.

While obviously conceptually related to the doll in the picture, Jenny Hanivers are a different kind of creation: not plumped up by the straw, and not given glass eyes, they’re still cute but pretty menacing. So one would very unlikely give a Jenny Haniver to a child or classify them as dolls: they’re appropriately grouped with the Fiji mermaids of PT Barnum fame. I also found a lovely photo of Salvador Dali posing with a Jenny Haniver.

More modest than its celebrity-embracing counterpart, and rarer, I think the doll in the picture (who has a buddy next to it, to show the visitors the way a Mermaid’s doll looks from the back) is absolutely fantastic. Look at its chubby cheeks and proud strut!