A Sweet Little Raggedy Doll and a Sweet Little Raggedy House at 537 N. Tacoma Avenue
Raggedy Ann
Once again, eBay serves as the source of inspiration for historical discovery! Last week, a rare 1915 Raggedy Ann doll in good condition with original dress was listed for sale at $1600 — a steep price for a doll that sported the name “Raggedy” from the get-go.
The century-old legend of Raggedy Ann was the creation of Indianapolis native, John Barton “Johnny” Gruelle (1880-1938) who moved with his family to Indianapolis from Arcola, Illinois when he was a young boy. His father, Richard Buckner “R.B.” Gruelle, a professional portrait and landscape artist, was a celebrated member of the highly regarded Hoosier Group, a community of impressionists that included Theodore C. Steele, William Forsyth, Otto Stark, and John Ottis Adams.
Though today he’s best known as the creator of Raggedy Ann, Johnny Gruelle was an accomplished artist, himself, and quite multifaceted. He was employed as a political cartoonist, children’s book author, illustrator, and even songwriter. If you aren’t familiar with the Raggedy Ann character, or how she’s “related” to the equally beloved Little Orphant Annie, check out these links:
Raggedy Ann (and similar-looking) dolls were manufactured by several toy makers and home seamstresses. This Volland version recently found on eBay (pictured above) differs only slightly from the original 1915 Gruelle patent. The Volland Raggedies were produced during the late 19-teens through the 1920s and were stamped on the torso with the patent date, “September 7, 1915”. These Ann dolls had uniform, stenciled faces with shoe-button eyes and blushed cheeks, brown (not red) yarn hair, feet that turned out, and a hard cardboard heart sewn into the chest that could be felt easily when hugged.
TRIVIA: It’s a common belief that original dolls each contained a candy heart. Indeed, Worth Gruelle, one of J.B. Gruelle’s children, claimed that the first Raggedy Ann dolls did have a literal source for her sweet disposition. However, to date, no Raggedy Ann has been discovered to have a sewn-in candy heart.
TRIVIA: The Raggedy Ann character lived out gentle adventures in a line of popular children’s books written and illustrated by Gruelle and produced by an Indianapolis publishing house, Bobbs-Merrill. Perfect in sentiment for the era into which she was born (the Great Depression) Raggedy Ann stories promoted making do, self-reliance, humility, hard work, kindness, and positivity. Throughout the years, her nationally-popular likeness could be found on advertisements ranging from collapsible voting machines to Post Toasties cereal.
Raggedy Indy
The first thought of Raggedy Ann may well have been cooked up in a raggedy little house that still stands at 537 North Tacoma Avenue. The current owner, a neighbor of the Gruelle house, purchased the Tacoma Avenue property with the initial thought that he might salvage what he could and then knock it down to avoid unsavory neighbors (which in the past had included rats and illicit drug activity). As he began to research the property, he learned that his neighborhood had a rich history dating back to 1872, when Civil War general George F. McGinnis purchased and recorded the original plat of 16 acres.
The current owner further discovered that the house was at first a humble single-story, three-room-plus-pantry home built by the parents of Johnny Gruelle around 1890, for their expanding family. The home’s original address was 31 Eureka Avenue (the legal description of the property was: “Lot 33, GF McGinnis Subdivision of Hanna heirs.” Eureka would be changed to Tacoma).
Research into the Gruelle name quickly led the home’s current owner to a program from an art exhibition that was held December 10-27, 1907 in Chicago, IL. Richard Gruelle’s work “Gloucester Moonlight” was featured at the event Note the address given was that of 537 Tacoma Avenue.
The Gruelles moved in without electricity or indoor plumbing. Over the years, the family added a second story, an entrance hall, and a front porch. At the time, the neighborhood was located among sparsely settled farmlands where Johnny and his siblings could roam and play freely. The lot where the current owner lives was once the “cow lot” where the Gruelle family cow was tethered. R. B. Gruelle built a studio there along with a structure for some chickens.
The house passed out of Gruelle family control in 1910. In later decades, it would suffer long periods of abandonment and ill use as other structures have in that economically distressed neighborhood. In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s the building was subdivided to serve as a duplex. The lot became overgrown with mulberry trees and weeds, and the house itself suffered from inexpert repairs. The front and back porches would eventually have to be removed.
Fortunately, despite all this, the current owner has reconsidered his initial plan to demolish the Gruelle home. He has considered several options including a bed and breakfast and a mini-museum similar to the James Whitcomb Riley Home — a dream he hopes to realize if supplemental funding sources can be secured.
Unfortunately, despite his best efforts to protect what’s left of the structure in the short term, the City of Indianapolis has had a differing opinion. Currently, the Raggedy house at 537 North Tacoma sits under a tenuous demolition order. The building is stabilized but uninhabited, awaiting funding and public interest… or possibly the city wrecking ball.
A Facebook page has been established so that we can all follow along with the progress of the Gruelle property.
A similar Facebook page has been established to tell the history and redevelopment of the McGinnis Neighborhood.
Did you know the Gruelle Family?
Do you perhaps have a photo of the original Gruelle home? 
What were your favorite Raggedy Ann toys or stories?