I met Pinkie just as I was nearing the end of my M. Louise Carpenter Gloeckner, M.D. Summer Research Fellowship at the Drexel University College of Medicine’s Legacy Center. I had already spent several weeks combing through the archives of Hahnemann University and Woman’s Medical College, looking for details about the history of doctors’ wives, my new research project. After account after account of horse shows, fashion show benefits, and bridge teas held by women’s auxiliaries, I thought that maybe I had uncovered enough texture to call it quits sooner than expected.
But then there was Pinkie.
That day, I finally discovered some extant copies of the Association Courier, the newsletter of the Hahnemann Hospital Association. In the February 1966 issue, there was a routine report on the Association’s volunteer-run gift cart program (which requested, as usual, donations of paperback novels). The Interns and Residents’ Wives group, newly formed, would be holding an “entertaining cosmetic demonstration” later that month.
This was all pretty basic stuff for a mid-1960s women’s auxiliary. But one news item caught my eye: The Country “Twig” (what the HHA called the various local branches of its organization) was undertaking a new project with members of the undergraduate wives group and some members of the Bala and Main Line Twigs. They would be “creating Pinky the Puppet at least 200 times.” “These gay little puppets,” the newsletter explained, would “be given each child leaving the seventh floor after treatment.” It implored women to “save nylons to be used for stuffing Pinky’s head.”1
What on earth was Pinky the Puppet? Was this a Hahnemann exclusive, or did these women get the idea from some other group? What did they look like? Were they anything like the creepy porcelain dolls adorning the covers of programs for HHA fundraising events that I’d unearthed earlier in the week? I had to know.
I knew about some weird Progressive era campaigns around children’s health, like Cho-Cho the health clown.2 But I knew nothing about this kind of program, and certainly not in the postwar era, though it made sense that something like this might exist.
I decided that I must drop everything I was doing with the Courier and investigate this puppet immediately. I admittedly became somewhat obsessed, but it was a fun afternoon rabbit hole.
As it turns out, Pinkie the Puppet (spelled “–ie” everywhere but in my original source) has a long and august history. In 2008, the Pinkie Puppet Program of the University of Virginia Medical Center celebrated its 50th anniversary. Operating in partnership with the UVA Hospital Auxiliary, volunteers at the Charlottesville Senior Center were still joining the sewing sessions. One woman interviewed by a local news station had been “volunteering her time to the puppet making assembly line for 30 years.” She explained that they were “doing something that’s important and appreciated…not only appreciated by the receiver but by the giver.”3
In Ohio, patients at the Akron Children’s Hospital began receiving Pinkie puppets in 1956. By the mid-2010s, however, the long-running Pinkie program by the Friends of Akron Children’s Hospital was having a difficult time finding volunteers to sew and provide supplies. In 2015, the hospital switched to distributing “Barkers,” a prefabricated stuffed dog.4
I was impressed by the surprisingly long life of Pinkie programs. But as someone who cried while reading The Velveteen Rabbit as a young girl, I was also a little confused by the idea of volunteers giving sick kids fabric toys. At some point, they must have realized that perfectly good toys didn’t have to be unnecessarily destroyed in the name of disease prevention, my inner 6-year-old harumphed. I pressed on in my investigation.5
Did any Pinkies still survive? Could I perhaps buy my own Pinkie? I quickly opened a new tab in my browser to check eBay. There was not only a Pinkie for sale, but a variety of them. Some looked more professional than others; some had obvious wear and tear from either lots of playing or years of storage. Most were stamped on the back to indicate that they were a gift of a particular auxiliary group — “Compliments of St. Mary’s Auxiliary,” for example.6
Some had kewpie doll faces; some had clown faces. Pinkies could also be racially diverse — I found a number of auction listings for puppets with African American faces.7 Presumably the DIY nature of the sewing groups allowed for flexibility in creating puppets to better represent the patient populations in majority-black pediatrics wards.
I shelled out a few extra dollars for a Pinkie with the original tag still attached, complete with the “Pinkie the Puppet” poem:
I submitted a best offer, which was accepted almost immediately. (I don’t think the market for Pinkie puppets is exactly hot right now.)
Meanwhile, while frantically Googling I found Pinkie in another unexpected source: obituaries. Jean Lily Stuber of Wilmington, NC was an “avid gardener” who “loved to help others” and made Pinkie puppets with the New Hanover Hospital Women’s Auxiliary “until Alzheimer’s slowly took her memory away.”8 Florence H. Graff of Hagerstown, MD, predeceased by her physician husband, was an avid community volunteer. As a member of the Washington County Hospital Auxiliary, she sewed Pinkies for 30 years.9
Rose Rita Kildea of Charlottesville died shortly after the local media profiled her group’s 50th Pinkie anniversary. The Brooklyn native was “particularly enthusiastic” about the puppet program, run jointly by the Senior Center and the University Hospital Auxiliary.10 These obituaries, though morbid, put Pinkie into perspective for me: for a certain group of women, this little puppet was a really big deal.
My own Pinkie finally arrived as my fellowship ended, but I had already learned so much from my afternoon of obsessive puppet research. First of all, Pinkie tells me that certain practices among hospital auxiliary groups were both very widespread and fairly standardized. I am now on the lookout for other hints of coordination between different institutions and places, as I go forward with this project. More importantly, though, Pinkie provides concrete evidence of the hidden and taken-for-granted labor of this veritable army of women volunteers. As Pinkie’s far-reaching and long-lived presence reveals, this was a major operation. And it was only one activity of many that doctors’ wives and other hospital volunteers engaged in.
My Pinkie now lives on a shelf with my growing collection of vintage women’s medical auxiliary charity cookbooks. I like to think of it as a kind of memorial to women like Jean, Florence, and Rose.
- “News from the Twigs,” Association Courier: The Newsletter of the Hahnemann Hospital Association (February 1966), 3-4, Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center, Acc. OS.145, Hahnemann Hospital Association. Return to text.
- For more on Cho-Cho and other child health programs of this period, see, for example, Naomi Rogers, “Vegetables on Parade: American Medicine and the Child Health Movement in the Jazz Age,” in Cheryl Krasnick Warsh and Veronica Strong-Boag, eds., Children’s Health Issues in Historical Perspective (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005), 23-71. Return to text.
- Jennifer Black, “Long Running Pinkie Puppets Program Spreads Cheer,” CBS 19 News Charlottesville (August 26, 2008). Return to text.
- Akron Children’s Hospital Public Relations Staff, “New gift for Akron Children’s patients is all Barkers, no bite,” Akron Children’s Hospital (May 20, 2015). Return to text.
- In The Velveteen Rabbit, when the young owner of a beloved stuffed rabbit became ill with scarlet fever, the doctor ordered that he be sent to the seaside for his health and that all of his toys be burnt in the name of disinfection. Fortunately, by way of fairy magic, the rabbit escaped this fate and became real. Return to text.
- “Vintage 1960s Handmade Face Hand Puppet Doll St. Mary’s Auxiliary Hospital,” accessed July 30, 2018. Return to text.
- “Vintage 1950s? Face Hand Puppet Rare Black Pinkie New IN Box – A MUST SEE,” accessed July 30, 2018. Return to text.
- Jean L. Stuber Obituary, St. Andrew’s Mortuary (November 2017). Return to text.
- Florence H. Graff Obituary, Herald-Mail Media (February 3, 2013). Return to text.
- Rose Rita Kildea Obituary, Hill & Wood Funeral Service (August 2009). Return to text.