Around 1900 the Elk Knitting Mills Co. was started in Philadelphia by Harry Nelke. The company produced knit underwear for women and children.
In 1917, a woman approached the Nelkes about buying a small quantity of their fabric to make dolls for a charity bazaar. A few weeks later, the lady returned with two of the dolls she had made as gifts for Nelke's children.
The company had been losing business because of the changes in fashion so, after seeing the dolls, Nelke had his staff work on a doll that they could make in the factory using their stockinet material. This group was called the Nelke Corp. Their biggest problem in making the dolls was developing a paint that would be nonpoisonous, stick to the fabric and not wash off or be sucked off by a child.
Finally in 1920, Harry Nelke applied for a patent for his Nelke doll. The doll was made of stockinet and stuffed with a light fabric from Java which would float and dry quickly. The face was hand painted. There were no buttons or pins attached to the doll which had a label marked with the diamond logo signed Nelke.
Nelke started adding new characters to his line - a clown, kitten, rabbit and dog. Prices for the dolls were low with the small 8 inch dolls selling for 50 cents. In 1923, they added the Nelke Cop who was supposed to keep them all in line. Dolls were made in colors for the holidays such as black and orange for Halloween or red, white and blue for patriotic holidays which made them fun seasonal items.
The dolls proved to be very successful and in 1923, the company sold 400,000 of them. Herbert Nelke, the company's secretary and treasurer said that some dealers had placed standing orders for daily shipments.
Other lines were added. There was an infant's line which came in pink, white and light blue, as well as a sailor, bear, Indian, pig and Kewpie.
The dolls came in various sizes with 8 inches being the most common. In 1927, Nelke advertised a 30 inch doll and in 1926 an even larger clown was made for the Sesquicentennial in Philadelphia. It was billed as "The Largest Doll Ever Made,"
In spite of the fact that hundreds of thousands were produced, they have been hard to find. Probably because the dolls were cloth and inexpensive, they were not saved. When they got soiled they were likely thrown away. If the tag is missing from the collar, the doll may not be identified.
The last mention of the Nelke dolls I could find was from 1929 and they closed around 1930, possibly a victim of the Depression. It's a shame that they were able to survive the change in fashion but not the economy but at least some of their dolls survived to remind us of their story.