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Dolly Varden

A nickname used by Laura Ingalls Wilder to mean both Edith, the daughter of Eliza and Peter Ingalls, and Alma, the daughter of Ruby and Joseph Card. Laura’s cousin Edith was said to have been called Dolly Varden because she wore a dress of that pattern, made popular by Charles Dickens in his book, Barnaby Rudge.

Baby Edith was too small to know us but she laughed at me and held out her little hands. They all called her Dolly Varden because she had a pretty dress of calico that was called that. — Pioneer Girl
In By the Shores of Silver Lake, Aunt Docia brings the news to the Ingalls family that Aunt Ruby has married and has “two boys and a beautiful little girl named Dolly Varden.” This isn’t the first time Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions the name Dolly Varden in the Little House books. In Little House in the Big Woods, Uncle Peter and Aunt Eliza are said to have a daughter by this name as well. (Did Wilder simply forget that she had already used it?) Although their son Lansford was closer to Carrie Ingalls’ age and most likely the baby at the time of the Christmas story, Uncle Peter and Aunt Eliza also had daughter Edith Florence Ingalls (29 June 1872 – 13 July 1951).

Little is known about Ruby’s little daughter. Ruby and Joseph Card did have at least two children, though, one son (George) and one daughter. Daughter Alma Josephine was born shortly after the family was enumerated on the 1880 census in McLeod County, Minnesota; she died as a young child.

Dolly Varden was a character in Charles Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge, published first as a serial from February through November 1841 in the magazine Master Humphrey’s Clock. The serial was revised into book form in the late 1860s, and Barnaby Rudge was very popular during the 1870s.

In Barnaby Rudge, Dolly Varden is one of few female characters. Very little space is devoted to her except to describe her pretty looks; Dolly does little except drive male characters to distraction. Many female characters in Dickens’ novels were based on the love of his life, Ellen Teman. This fact was widely known at the time of publication, so the feelings towards positive female characters led to them being very admired and emulated.

Dolly Varden is described as “…the very pink and pattern of good looks, in a smart little cherry-coloured mantle, with a hood of the same drawn over her head, and upon the top of that head, a little straw hat trimmed with cherry-colored ribbons… These cherry-colored decorations brightened her eyes… vied with her lips [and]… shed a new bloom upon her face…”

The description was complete enough – and Dolly likable enough – to inspire a type of women’s costume consisting of a polonaise gown in green or white with cherry-colored spots and a flowered quilted underskirt, worn with a wide straw hat trimmed with flowers and ribbons tied under the chin. Pink became a most fashionable color. A bright cherry pink calico was given the name “Dolly Varden” in the early 1870s and assured that women living outside cultured society could afford fabric with which to make a dress in the Dolly Varden style.

Quite taken with the character he created, Dickens commissioned artist William Powell Frith (1818-1909) to paint a portrait of her. Auctioned following Dickens’ death in 1871, the painting helped create furor over the style, inspiring not only fashions named after the character, but songs and dances, a variety of horse, a species of trout, and the buffer on a railroad tender.


Dolly Varden (BW 4; SSL 1; PG), see also Card, Alma