12:55pm

Tue December 24, 2013
Parallels

A Portuguese Tradition Of 'Healing' Dolls For Christmas

Originally published on Tue December 24, 2013 8:02 pm

At a hospital tucked away off one of Lisbon's main cobblestone squares, Manuela Cutileira does triage on incoming patients.

"First we do a checkup, create a chart and assign a bed number — like you would in an ordinary hospital," Cutileira, the hospital's owner, explains. "Then we try to figure out what the treatment should be. If it's a simple procedure, we'll inform the family right away of the cost. And if it's something more complicated, they may have to leave the patient here overnight for more tests."

But this is no regular hospital.

Since the early 19th century, the Hospital de Bonecas has been performing surgery on children's beloved companions — their dolls. It's the oldest known facility of its kind, where seamstresses and handymen fix broken limbs and sew torn clothes on children's dolls. The current owner, Cutileira, used to be a teacher and took over the hospital from her parents when she retired.

As a frugal alternative to Toys R Us, the Hospital de Bonecas does a swift trade at Christmas. Hospital bills start at around $5, and range into the hundreds for intricate repairs on antique collectors' items.

For lower-end repairs, Cutileira's business is booming. With 1 in 6 Portuguese out of work and poverty rising, many gifts this year are recycled — something old made new.

Grandparents bring in their own tattered childhood dolls to be restored and passed down to their grandkids. Churches also commission repairs for religious icons and figurines.

Repairing Baby Jesuses

"At this time [of year], we get a lot more baby Jesuses, because everybody's getting their nativity scene ready," says Elizabeth Pena, a Cutileira family friend who gives tours of the hospital's doll collection. "Sometimes he's had an accident the year before, so he comes in to be helped out," she says, laughing.

In the hospital's main operating room, a technician in an orderly's smock performs a double leg transplant. On a shelf nearby, a stuffed dog in a yellow raincoat belts out the tune "Singing in the Rain."

He'd lost his voice and had his vocal cords operated on, Cutileira says with a smirk. She points out that not every place like this can repair stuffed animals, dolls that cry or toys that speak.

"We accept all types of dolls. We can fix anything, from the oldest porcelain dolls to the newest Barbies and Kens," says Cutileira, who took NPR on a recent tour of her hospital. "That's what makes our hospital unique."

"We have a tendency to value, in a time of crisis, what we had when we were happy. These dolls are cherished pieces of family history," she says. "They have all the meaning in the world."

Founded in 1830, the hospital is housed in an 18th-century Pombaline row house on Lisbon's historic Praça da Figueira square.

Outside, the building — a former schoolhouse — is lined with colorful Portuguese ceramic tiles, or azulejos. Inside, the walls are lined with spare body parts from "organ donor" dolls — odd arms and legs, and assorted sizes and colors of big, blinking glass eyes.

Aside from all the dolls that are repaired and sent home, Cutileira and her ancestors have amassed one of the largest permanent collections in the world, with hundreds of thousands of dolls: from 19th-century German S" celluloid dolls, to collector's edition Barbies, to some of the oldest known multiracial dolls from Portugal's African colonies.

Cutileira has no idea how much all of this is worth, and she doesn't care to find out.

"We are a hospital, and all patients are valuable to us. They're all treated equally," she says. "We know we have lots of dolls here that are valuable, but they're all the same to us. You can't put a value on your sentiments."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

And now, a toy story. Since the early 19th century, a special kind of hospital in Portugal has performed surgery on children's beloved companions. We're talking about their dolls. Seamstresses and handymen fix broken limbs and mend torn clothes. It's the oldest known facility of its kind. The historic hospital does a swift trade at Christmas. And with Europe's poor economy, many gifts this year are recycled - something old, made new. From Lisbon, here's Lauren Frayer has the story.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Up an old wooden staircase, in a row house off one of Lisbon's main cobblestone squares, Manuela Cutileira does triage on incoming patients.

MANUELA CUTILEIRA: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: When a doll comes in, we first do a checkup, create a chart and assign a bed number, like you would in a regular hospital. Then we try to figure out what the treatment should be. If it's a simple procedure, we'll inform the family right away of the cost. And if it's something more complicated, they may have to leave the patient here overnight for more tests.

Cutileira runs Lisbon's Hospital de Bonecas, Doll Hospital, in Portuguese. Founded in 1830, it's been managed by her family ever since. There are lots of toy stores that sell new dolls but this facility lovingly repairs them.

CUTILEIRA: (Through translator) We accept all types of dolls. We can fix anything, from the oldest porcelain dolls to the newest Barbies and Kens. That's what makes our hospital unique. We even repair stuffed animals and toys with mechanisms that speak or dolls that cry.

FRAYER: And this little stuffed animal in a yellow raincoat needed some new wiring, Cutileira explains.

CUTILEIRA: (Through translator) He had lost his voice, so we had to operate and restore his vocal chords for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGING IN THE RAIN")

GENE KELLY: (Singing) I walk down the lane.

FRAYER: Next door, in the operating room, a woman in an orderly's smock performs a double-leg transplant. The walls here are lined with drawers filled with spare body parts from organ donor dolls: odd arms and legs, blinking glass eyes of assorted sizes and colors. Around the holidays, there's a swell of grandparents delivering their own tattered childhood dolls to restore and pass down to their grandkids. Churches also bring in their religious icons, says Elizabeth Pena, who gives tours of the hospital's permanent collection.

ELIZABETH PENA: At this time, we get a lot more baby Jesuses, because everybody is getting their nativity scene ready. And sometimes he's had an accident the year before, so he comes in to be helped out.

(LAUGHTER)

FRAYER: The Hospital de Bonecas offers a frugal alternative to Toys R Us. And admissions here are rising with the poor economy. About 17 percent of Portuguese are out of work. Taxes are going up. Poverty is spreading. Hospital bills here start at around $5. Cutileira, the owner, says her business is booming. Perhaps, Europe's economic crisis makes people realize what matters most: family, tradition, history, she says.

CUTILEIRA: (Through translator) We have a tendency to value in a time of crisis what we had when we were happy. These dolls are cherished pieces of family history. When you're running from war or oppression, what you can fit in your handbag is a little doll or a teddy bear who comes with you. That has all the meaning in the world.

FRAYER: Aside from all the dolls who are patched up here and go home, Cutileira has amassed one of the largest doll collections in the world, from 19th century German celluloid dolls to collectors' edition Barbies and some of the oldest known multiracial dolls from Portugal's African colonies. Hundreds of thousands of dolls altogether. Cutileira has no idea how much all this is worth and she doesn't care to find out.

CUTILEIRA: (Through translator) We are a hospital and all patients are valuable to us. They are all treated equally. We know we have lots of dolls here that are valuable, but they're all the same to us. You can't put a value on your sentiments.

FRAYER: Cutileira used to be a teacher. And when she retired, she took over the hospital from her parents. She hopes her daughters will one day do the same. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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