Alexis Wise is a descendent of Della’s original owner, Adelle Louise Reaveneau Kittleband, who boarded at St. Cecilia Academy in the early 1900s. Wise recently donated Della to St. Cecilia and the doll now sits in the glass case near a lace graduation fan donated by a 1914 graduate. Photo by Mary McWilliams
Della sits in the lobby of St. Cecilia Academy and is in the perfect spot to see all the activities and the faces of girls coming and going through the school.
But Della’s blue eyes only catch a reflection, they don’t really see. She is an antique porcelain bisque doll recently donated to the school by a descendant of Della’s owner, Adelle Louise Raveneau.
Adelle was a student who boarded at St. Cecilia in the early 1900s. The doll was most likely with young Adelle while at St. Cecilia, and now about 100 years later, Della is back at the school, the liaison between today and yesterday.
Della was donated to the school by Alexis Cecil Wise, who worked for 25 years as a librarian at Father Ryan High School. The doll passed into her hands in 2007 as a Christmas present from her beloved Aunt Mamie, who was married to James Kittleband, the only child of Della’s original owner, Adelle, and her husband, also named James. Their son was born at the couple’s Murphy Road home in 1914.
Adelle, who lived from 1883 to 1964, made the clothing that her doll still wears, a light white cotton dress with tatting, embroidery, and lacework that hides pantaloons. A peach ribbon drawn through the length of the dress and sleeve cuffs add subtle color.
It is believed that the school assigned her to make the clothing. It’s a different world now at St. Cecilia Academy where home economics and other domestic sciences are no longer taught.
But not only did Adelle clothe her doll, made by the German company J.D. Kestner, she also gave some of her red-brown hair for the doll’s wig.
Della sat on a shelf in Adelle’s home, enclosed in a glass dome to keep her clean. It was when the elder James died that Della came into the possession of Uncle Jimmie and Aunt Mamie, who remained childless, then on to Alexis, and now to St. Cecilia.
“I have given a lot of thought to what will happen to Della,” Wise said. “I have two grown sons and three grandsons. They are not interested in the doll. I wanted to find her a good home.” And that is not just because she is an antique porcelain doll, but also due to her feelings toward her Aunt Mamie who died in 2014 and the legacy she helped to carry on with Della.
“I miss her dearly,” Wise, a Bellevue resident and a parishioner at St. Henry Church, said of her aunt. “She was a very special person.”
Wise at first considered giving her to the Dominican Motherhouse but it was suggested to give her to the school so more people could see her.
“We’re just so grateful to have the doll in our possession now,” said Susan George, communications director for the school. “It’s something from our history from so long ago.”
According to collectorsweekly.com, porcelain bisque dolls were made in France and Germany. Their delicate facial features as well as other lifelike details such as their eyes and hair made them in demand by both women and girls in the Victorian era. Today, doll collecting is the second most popular hobby in the United States, as noted in the book, “A Profile of the United States Toy Industry, Serious Fun, 2nd Edition” by Christopher Byrne. Modern collecting now, however, spans many eras, not just antique dolls.
Before giving her to the school in March, Wise took Della to Peggy Sperrazza, of Peg o’ My Heart doll restoration, and also a parishioner of St. Henry. She needed only some freshening up so Sperrazza cleaned the bisque, combed and set the wig, and washed, mended, and ironed the clothing, and today, Della is a youthful, fresh-looking centenarian.
Della’s new home is in a glass case in the lobby near another relic of her time, a white lace graduation fan that belonged to Rose Dalton Dortch, a St. Cecilia Academy graduate from the class of 1914. Together, the two items offer girls of the present and future a glimpse into life in the early 1900s.