The Great Depression was over and America stood poised to enter World War II when Brenda Starr, Reporter first debuted in the Chicago Tribune on June 30, 1940. The Rita Hayworth-inspired comic strip character captivated many, and young girls looked each Sunday for the paper doll and fashion cutouts that accompanied the comic strip.
One of those girls was Betty Wettstein, who lived on a farm in rural Washington. She was 10 when Brenda Starr first was printed, and while her younger sister, Doris, enjoyed baseball and other sports, Betty remained a spectator, sidelined due to chronic bronchial asthma.
“She liked playing with baseball bats and tennis rackets, I liked playing with paper dolls,” Wettstein recalled. “She didn’t like paper dolls at all, but she acted interested for me.”
In the early 40s, America launched a paper drive and even implemented a Paper Troopers program. Newspapers in Washington were collected and kept in a barn, and Betty found the means to rifle through the stacks in search of comics.
“It was easy to find the color comics in the stacks,” she said. “The Peoria paper had a doll, too, but she wasn’t as sophisticated as (Brenda) Starr.”
The dolls stacked up, enough to fill a suit box, she said, but after she married at 19, her mother asked if she could destroy the box to make room in the closet of Wettstein’s old bedroom.
“I thought, ‘I guess I’m a grown up now’ and I said, ‘You can burn them.'” It was a decision she lived to regret.
t would be 10 years until Wettstein’s interests turned again to paper dolls. On vacation with her husband Bob, the two were visiting the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Tennessee when she spied a book of Southern Belle dolls at a gift store there.
“It was the beginning of the end,” she laughed. “It went from bad to worse.”
What began with a single book became a collection of thousands of paper dolls, which included presidential families, like the Nixons, the Kennedys, the Roosevelts. She bought the likenesses of movie stars and famous people; Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe, Queen Elizabeth.
“I really like the ones from foreign countries,” she said. “I have Italian ones, Scandinavian, Korean … all over the world.”
The collection remained stored at her home in specially-designed closets until a few months ago, when Wettstein donated them to the Woodford County Historical Society. Earlier this year she was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, and felt compelled to give them to the organization for which she often volunteered.
Her son Mike and grandson Cody took the collection, which was organized by subject, to the Historical Society’s offices at 112 N. Main St. In Eureka.
“He expected to use his station wagon, but he had to come back with his pickup truck,” Wettstein said. She kept duplicate books in her home and has since bought a few more items, including Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Barrack Obama books.
Historical society secretary, Karen Fyke, along with other volunteers, have begun inventorying the collection, and maintain a rotating display of the dolls in a large display case there. In the meantime, the dolls are numbered and entered into a database.
“I’m so happy they’re there, where they can be seen and enjoyed,” Wettstein said. “It gives me peace of mind knowing where they’ll be.”
— Hobby that began in 1940s now an exhibit at Woodford museum —