Annalee Davis Thorndike is an important New Hampshire businesswoman and entrepreneur who built a home craft business in Meredith into a national company. Born in Concord, NH, in 1915, Annalee Davis Thorndike pursued her interest in art by making dolls. Her first creations were marionettes, then she began making cloth dolls. Children of the era typically played with cloth dolls with changeable clothes. Thorndike was not making toys, however. From the beginning, her dolls were in set positions, with the clothes sewed onto the doll. These were dolls for display, each with a story to tell. She began selling the dolls through the New Hampshire League of Arts and Crafts, which later would become the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. As the Great Depression progressed, she created new dolls with varied materials. During the 1930s Annalee began making her popular skier dolls.
In 1941 Annalee married Charles “Chip” Thorndike, the son of a Boston physician. Chip had become a chicken farmer in Meredith. Chip and Annalee worked on the farm through the 1940s and 1950s, until poultry farming was no longer profitable in New Hampshire. Needing another way to make a living, Annalee returned to making dolls. She started in the kitchen of her Meredith farmhouse, helped by local women. Soon every corner of the house was taken over with doll parts. Thorndike not only employed several women in her home, she took work out to be completed in other women’s homes. Her husband Chip created clever wooden components for the dolls, including skis, ski poles, and little boats. It was Chip who designed the wire frame that held the dolls in position. The doll business was incorporated in 1955 as Annalee Mobilitee Dolls.
Annalee’s dolls from the 1950s appeared in promotions in Manchester and Boston store windows. The State of New Hampshire hired Annalee to create dozens of dolls to help promote tourism. Annalee dolls that were skiing, fishing, and hunting highlighted New Hampshire attractions at the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, Mass., and at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
The success of the promotional programs launched the popularity of Annalee Dolls. By 1960, the dolls were being sold to retail outlets in forty states, Canada, and Puerto Rico. The company was by then a major Lakes Region business. In 1964, Thorndike moved the operation out of her house and into a “factory in the woods.” It has expanded several times since then.
The individual Annalee dolls document hairstyles and dress of the times, creating a lasting statement about life in New Hampshire since World War II. The exhibition reflected Thorndike’s artistic talent, hard work, and shrewd business sense. The display chronicled her experiences building a small home-based craft industry into a manufacturer of national importance, in the process telling a remarkable Yankee success story of perseverance and creativity.