How Stephanie Dean Transformed Her Love of Dolls into a Thriving Business
By Regina R. Robertson
It goes without saying that representation matters, especially for kids. And the earlier, the better. Seeing positive images of themselves reflected on screen and in books, games and toys, can have an enormous impact on how children envision and carry themselves in the world. It’s something that Stephanie Dean, creator of the Cinnamon Annie doll, knows well.
Dean has loved dolls since she was a young girl growing up in the small, segregated town of Albany (pronounced all-benn-knee), Georgia. She credits her mother, an educator for more than thirty years, for making sure her child always had Black dolls to play with, many of which were purchased by way of the Sears catalog. “I got my first doll when I was about two or three years old,” Dean says by phone from her home sewing room in Decatur, Ga. “I just loved that plastic doll so much.”
Along with her dolls, there was a children’s book that had a “real influence” on her as well. “What Mary Jo Wanted was about a little Black girl from an average family, living in an average house – just like mine – who wanted a puppy,” Dean recalls. “That book [boosted] my self-esteem and normalized Blackness in a way that it wasn’t out of the ordinary. It also helped me understand that I wasn’t different than anybody else, which is something you could feel living in the deep south during the late sixties and early seventies.”
A former schoolteacher and social worker, Dean’s creative journey began when her son and daughter – now a college graduate and college senior, respectively – were still children. First, she took up crafting, which, over time, led to sewing. She started selling tote bags, T-shirts and pillows. In 2016, she launched her company, Step Stitches.
“My [maternal] grandmother was an expert seamstress and my mother taught me a little bit about sewing when I was coming up, too,” says Dean, who was inspired to try her hand at sewing her first doll while scrolling through Pinterest one day. “I saw the cutest Black Raggedy Ann and I kept looking and looking, but it wasn’t available anywhere. Once I realized that the doll was handmade, I thought, ‘Maybe I could make one.’” So, she made one, then another, then a few more. In the spring of 2016, she posted the dolls on her Instagram page, and the response was immediate.
“As much as I enjoyed making them, I didn’t think anybody would want one because it’s such a vintage style of doll,” she admits, “But people were like, ‘I want one! Can you make me one?’ They just really took off.”
Next, she had to come up with a name. “Because the skin tone was as important to me as the doll [itself], I knew that I wanted her to have her own name,” says Dean. “After playing around with a few names, Cinnamon Annie just stuck.” Last October, she created a little boy doll, too, affectionately named Cinnamon Andy. Sold on Etsy and We Buy Black, the dolls are available in three colors and three sizes (plus a special ornament-sized doll available during the holidays).
Much has changed since Dean’s mother bought those beloved baby dolls from a mail order catalogue. According to the Brookings Institution, by the year 2045, the country will become “minority white” as the population of Latinx-, Black- and Asian- Americans continues to grow. These changing demographics make it essential for all children, not just Black children, to have toys that reflect and celebrate diversity. “For the majority race, everything is centered and normalized around them,” notes Dean. “But we’re living in a society that’s becoming more and more diverse. More parents want their kids to grow up without having to unlearn some of the biases that we all have. They know that a doll is one way to help with that.”
To date, most of Dean’s customers have been Black, but she has noticed a shift. Of the many positive e-mails she’s received, there is one in particular, from the white grandmother of a transracially adopted Black child, that Dean will never forget. She even printed it out and hung it on her wall. “The grandmother wrote me to say that when her granddaughter saw the doll, she said, ‘Oh, she looks just like me!’”
Regina R. Robertson is a Los Angeles-based journalist, scriptwriter and the award-winning editor of He Never Came Home: Interviews, Stories, and Essays from Daughters on Life Without Their Fathers (Agate Bolden).