The Dominican Hands Behind Iconic ‘Madame’ Dolls

Madame Alexander doll factory on West 131st Street in 2008. (Photo by Angela Radulescu, Creative Commons license)

The Madame Alexander doll factory on West 131st Street in 2008. (Photo by Angela Radulescu, Creative Commons license)

From its inception in 1923, the Madame Alexander Doll factory employed immigrants and African Americans for many decades from its location on West 131st Street. The demographics of the workers reflected the changing waves of immigration throughout the 20th century, from the Jewish and Italian immigrants of the company’s first five decades to the Dominican women who took over the machines in the 1970s.

In “The Faces Behind the Dolls,” producer Mary Ely Peña-Gratereaux focuses on the latter group, making the first documentary on Dominican women in the U.S. labor force, reports Manhattan Times’ Sherry Mazzocchi.

Shown as part of a film series at Word Up Community Book Shop last Saturday [March 22], the film lovingly tells the stories of women who made dolls at the Madame Alexander Doll factory on West 131st Street.

The daughter of Russian immigrants, Beatrice Alexander Behrman, started out by making dolls at her kitchen table. In 1923, she borrowed $1,600 –an enormous amount of money at the time—and opened a factory.

As immigration waves changed, however, so did the wages.

The factory demanded skilled labor. But the Dominican women were often paid less than half the salaries of the women they replaced – $80 to $100 a week compared to $250 a week.

Nonetheless, the Dominican women pledged their loyalty to an employer that provided steadfast support to the immigrant workforce.

They were loyal to a company that would sometimes hide people without papers if immigration officials made a visit. They took pains to write official letters for workers about their employment. They helped employees bring family members to the U.S. and even hired new arrivals.

By the 1990s, much of the factory’s production work was outsourced to China, with the number of workers at the Harlem factory plummeting from 650 to just above a dozen. Soon after the documentary was completed, the Harlem location closed for good.

For more on Mary Ely Peña-Gratereaux, who called the documentary “part of my own history,” visit Manhattan Times.

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