Long before there were G.I. Joes and Barbies, children made their own dolls constructed out of corn husks. These dried corn husk dolls were created by Native Americans and later adopted by European settlers – with many kids around the world still playing with them!
If you’re learning about Native American tribes or Early America, then corn husk dolls are a fun and easy hands-on project to include. Chances are your children will love making them just as much as playing with them.
Let’s walk through the history of corn husk dolls and how you and your kids can make these dolls from scratch with our easy corn husk dolls projects found in our Early 19th Century Time Traveler and History of Holidays Activity Study.
The History of Corn Husk Dolls
Corn or maize is a starchy vegetable or grain domesticated from a type of grass called teosinte in Mexico thousands of years ago. As native people migrated to present-day North America, they brought corn along with them. When Europeans like Christopher Columbus found the New World, they noticed that corn was a major part of the natives’ diets.
The natives taught the Americans how to grow corn, which would later become one of the most significant crops during the 1600-1700s. The natives also taught the Americans how to practically use every part of the corn plant – especially the stalks, which many people discarded.
When dried out, corn stalks were surprisingly sturdy and were used for a number of things – from poles for crops to walking sticks and kindling for fires. They also used the husks to weave mats, baskets, and of course, dolls!
By weaving and braiding corn husks, the natives would construct doll-like figures for children. When finished, they would be decorated with more corn husk or fabric clothing. Horsehair could be used as the doll’s hair, and sometimes flowers or beads were used to further decorate the doll.
Although corn husk dolls were considered a children’s toy, they were sometimes used during healing ceremonies or to ward off evil dream spirits. Many thought these dolls were magical charms that helped protect the home, livestock, crop, and overall health.
Many traditions believed grain crops “lost their spirit” after the final harvest, which meant people would bring them into their homes during the winter and return it to the earth come spring. This could be another important reason why corn husk dolls existed.
Corn Husk Dolls Story
Corn husk dolls have to do with the Corn Spirit, which is one of the “three sisters” or “sustainers of life” – corn, beans, and squash. If you ever look at a traditional corn husk doll, you’ll notice they don’t have faces! An Oneida tribe legend explains why.
The Corn Spirit was useful to her people, helping make mats, baskets, and more. One day the Corn Spirit asked the Great Spirit if she could provide something different for her people. With the Great Spirit’s permission, she made corn husk dolls to bring joy to children throughout the land.
However, there was one corn husk doll that was sung praises for her beauty. One day she looked into a pool of water and admired how beautiful she was. The doll began spending less time with the children and more time staring at herself.
The Great Spirit was angry at her vanity and gave her a warning. When the doll didn’t stop, the Great Spirit punished her by taking away her face so that she could neither look at herself nor converse with the children ever again!
These faceless dolls continue to serve as a reminder never to think you’re better than someone else.
How to Make Corn Husk Dolls
As you can see, corn husk dolls are packed with history that will interest your little ones. The best part is they are simple to make and really only require dried corn husks and whatever decorative items you wish to use.
Our simple step-by-step instructions will teach your child how to make and dry corn husks for dolls. Even boys can make these dolls into warriors, which is what our boys did! These cute dolls make for fun keepsakes and everyday play toys.
We include corn husk doll instructions in our Thanksgiving unit, found in our History of Holidays Activity Study. This is the perfect time to dress-up like a native American girl and learn how to make your first corn husk doll.
We also include DIY corn husk dolls in our Early 19th Century Time Traveler since these dolls were a popular toy American children played with after coming in contact with the Native Americans. They can even reenact the Corn Spirit’s story using the doll!
Do You Plan on Making Corn Husk Dolls?
We hope this post inspired you to make corn husk dolls this fall season. If you happen to make them, tag us on Facebook or Instagram so we can see your child’s sweet, homemade dolls! For more posts from our Crafting Through the Ages, check out The History of penny rugs, sewing, and quilts.