titanic doll head

This entry is unique in the “42 Historical Objects” series because it’s the only item that you can’t go see in a museum. It’s the porcelain head of a child’s doll, lying 12,000 feet under the surface of the Atlantic Ocean next to the wreckage of the luxury liner Titanic. Undersea explorer Robert Ballard spotted and photographed the doll’s head during a dive on the wreck in the submarine Alvin in July 1986. This is the only known photograph of the artifact. Ballard didn’t pick it up or record its position, so no one is sure exactly where it is. In fact, it may never be seen by human eyes again. While there’s a tremendous about of debris from the Titanic wreck littering the ocean floor, currents along the bottom cover and uncover various pieces of it at different times. The doll’s head just happened to be sticking out of the sand on the day Ballard dove.

Unlike the other historical toy I profiled in this series, the doll to which this head belonged was expensive, probably a luxury item. Dolls like this were manufactured mostly in France and Britain in the last half of the 19th and early part of the 20th century. The doll would have had a porcelain head but cloth body which decayed away in the cold crushing pressure of the deep ocean, leaving only the head. (The doll would probably have had porcelain hands too, but those would be the size of nickels and the chances of spotting them in the shifting sands of the ocean floor are nonexistent). Because it was expensive, the doll likely belonged to a child who traveled in first class. It could have belonged to Loraine Allison, one of the few first class children who perished in the disaster. As most people know, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage, going under the waves early in the morning of April 15, 1912. Loraine was 2 years old. Her brother Trevor, only a few months old, survived.

As most of the debris from the Titanic is machinery and ship wreckage, there are very few pieces that are personal and human. Among them–clothes, hairbrushes, shoes, etc.–the doll’s head has emerged as the most haunting, probably because it looks human. Also it signifies the horrible loss of a child; perhaps this doll’s owner survived, but many children on board the ship didn’t. Although director James Cameron incorporated the doll’s head into his 1997 movie Titanic, which did include shots actually filmed on or around the wreck, the particular shot in the movie was recreated with a modern prop. The real head does still exist, far down in the deep reaches of the ocean, most likely buried under sand and silt, a hidden and haunting reminder of a tragic night.

The photo of the doll’s head was taken by Robert Ballard. I do not know its copyright status, but it may be owned by National Geographic. I believe my use of it here constitutes fair use.