“They’re really quite exquisite,” Mike Cahall, chair of the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon’s collections and exhibits committee said as he walked past a glass case filled with meticulously handcrafted dolls.
A doll portraying the likeness of The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne—with a neatly stitched “A” on her dress—stands next to Jane Eyre, who’s donning a lace-trimmed bonnet and handmade gold dress.
More than 20 dolls and other artistic creations fill the historical society’s history center as part of its latest exhibit, The Art of Donna Harmon Hibler: Mt. Lebanon’s Doll Lady. The exhibit is open each Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 794 Washington Road.
“It’s just amazing to see the detail she put into them,” Cahall said, as he talked about Hibler’s work.
Hibler, a Mt. Lebanon native, was known across the country for her handmade dolls. A 1946 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate, Hibler worked for Bell Telephone and raised three children with her high school sweetheart, Richard, whom she married in 1952.
“She was a very artistic woman,” Cahall said. “She was always doing something, but what she was primarily known for were her dolls.”
Hibler, who died in 2021, began her artistic career making miniature scenes, Cahall said. “As her reputation grew, she got more and more orders for dolls.”
She made each doll from scratch. They were initially constructed using porcelain, but later an allergy to the material forced her to use Sculpey, a synthetic clay. Each doll was unique.
“Some of the faces are modeled from her imagination. Others are modeled after her children or people in the neighborhood that she saw,” Cahall said. Hibler was an avid reader, so some dolls were patterned after literary characters.
The intricate details of her work can be seen on the faces of each of her dolls. “They were her canvases,” Cahall said.
Hibler also hand-stitched their clothing, and many even came with accessories, like a flower basket or an accompanying pair of shoes and a hat.
“She was always looking for ways to express herself artistically,” Cahall said. Hibler extended her artistic reach, making everything from teddy bears to painted rocks.
It was Hibler’s son Eric and his wife Annamaria Carrington Hibler, who stopped by the History Center one day, looking for a use for the dolls. People at the history center were not only interested in the dolls, but the story behind them.
“I love the connection to Mt. Lebanon,” Cahall said. “One of the things that I love about local history is you tend to run into people like Donna Hibler. Here’s a local woman who had an international reputation as a doll maker.”