It’s hard to find much documentation about dolls used for sexual acts before the 20th century. Most likely because those early dolls did not survive the test of time due to the materials they were made out of. Also, people just didn’t document that sort of thing. Stories have been told but not much solid written or printed evidence. We have to go on hearsay and there’s very little of that too.
Cloth was a material used to create dolls for centuries, sex dolls included. There are stories of dolls made of cloth or leather and stuffed with straw or bits of cloth as early at the 15th century. Most notably is the Dames de Voyages (or Damas de Viajes) said to be used by French and Spanish sailors of the 17th century. They may not have been the only sailors to use them. Lonely sailors were looking for “companionship” during long voyages on the high seas of this era. Women were not allowed on board ships as they were thought to be unlucky. Instead, figures were fashioned out of fabric and stuffed to give fullness. At the same time, the Dutch were traveling to Japan. The Japanese gave the name “Dutch Wives” to the dolls supposedly made of leather the Dutch sailors had with them for their long journeys to the east. The term is used even today as slang for sex doll.
The Japanese may have been inspired by the Dutch Wives to make their own sex doll. The Azumagata Ningyo (substitute wife/woman doll in Japanese) was written about in the 18th century but images or written records no longer exist. It may have been sold as early as the mid 17th century. It’s said that this doll made of tortoise shell; cloth and leather could be purchased in Ryogoku, a popular shopping district. I also found mentions of a sex doll referred to as a do-ningyo. This doll was in the shape of a young girl with a velvet vulva. Tahi-joro (traveling whores) was another term for these dolls. I’m somewhat unsure if the azumagata ningyo is shaped like a person or is just a pillow shape with an entry area that is lined with tortoise shell and velvet, silk or leather. Ningyo means doll in Japanese so I’m leaning towards a female shaped doll of some sort.
A fascinating thing that came up often in my research was that these dolls seemed to be reserved for those of higher rank in nearly every culture that used them. They were reserved only for those of a high rank, those higher up the chain of command or higher up the social ladder. These dolls sound extremely rudimentary so it’s hard for me to imagine a low ranking sailor or lower class citizen couldn’t enjoy the comforts of a rag doll with strategic openings. One wonders at the hygienics involved in something that may not ever get washed, or washed well, especially after a lengthy time of being repeatedly used. Did many share them or did you have an exclusive relationship with your raggedy love doll? If they were shared there is a certain “ew” factor when it comes to cleanliness and I don’t even want to think about the ease of transmitting STIs among your shipmates.
The French, Spanish, Dutch and Japanese probably weren’t the only ones to come up with this tool for fornication. It paved the way for more realistic looking dolls once rubber is improved with the invention of vulcanization. It’s a shame none of these earlier dolls survived. It would be amazing to see what level of detail, or not, was given to the cloth doll. Unfortunately, we will probably never know what they really looked like or how they were made. Sex with simulacra will continue to evolve along with technology. It will be interesting to see where this this technology takes us.