Ella Smith and Family Ella Smith (1868-1932) was a toy manufacturer and artist who invented the Alabama Indestructible Doll, or “Ella Smith Doll.” Sturdier than the common porcelain-headed dolls of the time, her creation became widely popular and won a blue ribbon at the 1904 World’s Fair. The Ella Smith Doll Company, based in Roanoke, Randolph County, also was reputed to be the first doll maker in the South to create African American dolls. Unusual for a woman at the time, she held 11 patents by the time of her death. Smith was an interesting character in the Roanoke community: she typically wore a long black dress with matching cloak and often walked around with her hymn-singing parrot on her shoulder.
Ella Louise Gantt (sometimes spelled Gaunt or Gauntt) was born April 12, 1868, in Troup County, Georgia. She was raised in Alabama in the Langdale community (present-day Valley) in Chambers County. Ella’s mother, Mary Hill Gannt, worked as an artist, and her father, Levi Gannt, worked as a miller but was also an inventor and a poet. Ella attended Lagrange College and earned a degree in art. In 1886, she moved to Roanoke, Randolph County, to teach art at Roanoke Normal College. In 1890, she married Smiley Stateright “Bud” Smith, a carpenter, and gave up her teaching job because teachers were not allowed to be married. She then gave private art lessons and volunteered in her community.
Ella Smith Doll In 1897, Smith embarked on the career that would make her famous. That year, she invented the “Alabama Indestructible Baby” by accident when one of her neighbors, Verna Pittman, broke her china doll. She asked Smith if she could repair the doll, so Smith tried to mend the doll’s cracked head by filling it with a mixture of plaster and fibers. She found that this mixture made the fragile dolls much sturdier. Smith, a skilled seamstress, then conceived of the idea of making her own “indestructible” dolls. She stuffed the dolls’ bodies with cotton and made the heads from plaster; the first dolls she made lacked ears. Features on the arms, legs, and faces were then hand painted, and as her dolls grew more sophisticated, they were outfitted with lace dresses and wigs made of real human hair. Smith won the grand prize for innovation with her dolls at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to the dolls, Smith also made bunnies, Easter eggs, and artificial fruit.
Ella Smith Doll After making the dolls locally and selling them for several years, she applied for and received her first of 11 patents for the dolls in September 1905. Smith’s business increased so much in a few years that her husband built a factory behind their house in Roanoke. In addition to Smith, her workforce included 11 women who handmade each doll. She also had a special, off-limits room in the building where she manufactured her special ingredients for the dolls. The dolls grew in popularity very quickly; boys and girls from all over wanted one of the “Alabama Indestructible Babies.” At its peak around 1920,the factory produced between 8,000 and 10,000 items per year. Smith manufactured several versions of a doll for African American children, reportedly the first of their kind in the South. Doll prices ranged from $1.15 to $5.25, depending on the size and materials used to create them.
In March 1909, the Smiths had encountered a mother in a train station with her five children, whom she was taking to an orphanage. They adopted her infant daughter, Mary Louis Dixon, and renamed her Macie Louis Smith. The Smiths never told Macie of her other biological siblings, but Ella donated dolls every Christmas to orphanages in the area with the hopes that they would reach the other children. Later, the Smiths unofficially adopted several other children, including their nephew, Carey Gauntt.
Ella Smith Factory Workers With such a high demand and everything being handmade, Smith was persuaded by fellow Roanoke residents William E. McIntosh and Berry O. Driver Jr. to expand to a bigger factory and upgrade to modern machinery to make production more efficient. After the upgrade, the two men went on a business trip to New York and spent five weeks there showing the dolls to stores and seeking orders for them. On their return trip to Roanoke on March 12, 1922, a wheel on the train suddenly burst, sending the two men and five other people plunging 50 feet down to their deaths into Camp Creek outside Atlanta, Georgia. In addition to the loss of life in the accident, Smith found that no doll orders had been placed, resulting in a catastrophic loss of profit. In addition, McIntosh’s wife sued Smith’s company for his death, and she had to pay a large settlement. These two events caused Smith to incur huge debt and forced her to move back to the old doll factory, where her business slowly dwindled. She reportedly never recovered from the ruin of her business and lived out the rest of her life isolated from the community. Smith died on April 2, 1932, from complications of diabetes and kidney disease and was buried in Cedarwood Cemetery.
Ella Smith’s dolls were more than a toy. They were, and still are, an icon of Roanoke. The dolls are considered such an integral part of the town, that they have been incorporated into many pieces of Roanoke, such as the cornerstone of the First United Methodist Church. Today, the dolls sell for many thousands of dollars and are eagerly sought by collectors. Several examples are on display in the Randolph County Historical Museum in Roanoke. Smith’s factory is now an apartment complex with a historical marker out front.
This entry was created and submitted by the following students from Handley High School in Roanoke, Randolph County: Kalem Adamson, Lindsay Fincher, Eglacia Melton, Joya Staples, Victoria Tucker, and Sara Welsh.
Hales, Susan. “Ella Smith and the Alabama Indestructible Doll.” Alabama Heritage 84 (Spring 2007): 6,8.
Smith, Virginia Brannan. “Miss Ella Smith and Her Famous Roanoke Dolls.” Roanoke Leader, April 1980.