Memories of Greta Cohn
by John 'Clif' Hardy
Editor: In a recent issue, Rosemary wrote about the Grecon dolls she has collected since she was a child. Not long after that, I heard from someone else who has childhood memories of Grecon dolls - here he generously shares his stories with us.
Margarete Cohn had escaped Hitler's Germany in 1936, and settled in London, where she registered the trade name Grecon and carried on the doll-making career she had started in Germany. It was in London that 'Clif' Hardy and his family knew and worked for Miss Cohn.
Clif: My mother worked for Greta Cohn, she made the miniature Grecon dolls for many years. I knew Miss Cohn (or Connie as she was called) quite well, I did deliveries to her when I was not at school.
Undressed Grecon man. Photo © Valerie Towers
The dolls were made of flexible wire forming a sort of outline of a human frame, size dependent on adult or other needs. Next step for all frames other than babies was the attaching of the lead shoes. My father being a plumber had access to scrap lead from piping used in those days. He melted the lead over our coal fire in the lounge!!!!!!! or if the nagging from Mum got too heavy, on the ring of our gas stove in the kitchen.
Grecon shoes and wire frame of head and arms © Valerie Towers
Connie provided a mould into which the frame feet (right angle bends on both leg wires) were placed and held upright while molten lead was poured in. One body at a time, usually the wire bodies had been covered by other home workers. The body "flesh" was cotton waste bound round with cotton thread. The feet were really more like shoes with outlines of shoe laces etc. The moulds were turned out and the edges trimmed with a knife then dipped in a suitable paint colour, red, black, brown etc. Dolls destined for male or females dress all had the same shoe mould. Mum received the headless shoe-less bodies in dozen lots held together by elastic bands, dozens and dozens in delivery bags, together with heads.
Grecon dolls which have lost their hair, showing the head loop. Photo © Valerie Towers
Partly undressed Grecon man, showing head loop and thread-bound body. Photo © Valerie Towers
Mum attached the heads and created the hair styles required by sewing the shape of the style in black, brown etc wool. The heads were cloth with faces painted or printed on, stuffed with cotton waste and sewn onto the loop of the body frame with cotton. When required she would plait the wool hair and attach a coloured wool ribbon. The price she received varied according to the style.
Grecon family from Hamleys' catalogue for 1971/72.
On completing her part, she or I delivered the bags to Connie's flat in Streatham, it was a private block with a lift, called Streathleigh Court. Connie lived alone in her flat, her work room was filled with everything needed to create the dolls from bolts of felt in all colours, off cuts of bright cloth, cotton thread, cotton waste and finished dolls.
Mum worked with Connie for years and eventually recruited other workers (including my wife Barbara and a lady called Lymenski or similar who was a Polish refugee from the war) to help with hair and head attachment. On occasion she also dressed dolls with various styles, male and female, brides, grooms, business men, babies, teens, women in a wide variety of clothing. The cloth clothes were styled while sewing but the felt was ready cut or stamped out. Felt trousers, jackets, waistcoat fronts, hats; cloth used for dresses, skirts, blouses etc; wedding dresses were always the real silk as seen on any bride. Final job was sewing on the Grecon label, usually on the back of the doll.
Grecon girl with clothes removed, clearly showing the cotton waste around the frame, and the covered wires forming the legs and torso. Photos © Valerie Towers
Mum "manned " their display stand at the British Home Fair held in Olympia Stadium, surrounded by all their doll styles for orders to be delivered. I think Queen Mary the then Queen Mother or Elizabeth when she became Queen Mother attended the exhibition and placed orders for the dolls. I went there a few times and spent my time in the background or roaming round the exhibition for free.
Grecon family from Hamleys' catalogue for 1965.
Connie had got out of Germany just before the outbreak of WW2, her brother I think went to Switzerland and she came to England. As Jewish people they were lucky. Connie spent her holidays after the war staying in high-class hotels in Switzerland, she often sent us postcards.
Postcard from Miss Cohn in Basel, above and top left.
Postcard from Miss Cohn at a chalet in Switzerland, above and top right.
When I did a delivery to her I rode my bike or went by bus carrying the bags. She always had me come in and sit with a glass of lemonade and something 'special' to eat. She was funny in some ways, but always kind and grateful, she once gave me a bag of sugar for my birthday. She eventually moved down to the south coast of England where Mum would visit her every so often. My wife inherited a brooch that Connie gave to Mum, but a second hand feather doona was accepted gracefully and disposed of when Mum got home.
Postcard from Miss Cohn showing Brighton and Hove, in Sussex, where she had moved in the late 1950s.