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What is a Corn Dolly?

By Rebecca Cartwright
Updated: Feb 23, 2024

A corn dolly is a small figure made of straw. Corn dollies are part of the folk customs surrounding the grain harvest in Great Britain and much of Europe. In that part of the world, "corn" originally referred to any grain, especially wheat, and it is grain straw — not modern corn — that goes into making corn dollies. When referring to corn dollies, the word "dolly" is probably a corruption of the word "idol."

It was once believed in Europe that the spirit of the corn lived in the growing crop, and the dolly gave the corn spirit shelter after the crop was harvested. The dolly was usually burned or ripped apart in the fields before planting time the next spring. Destroying the dolly released the spirit and allowed it to aid another successful harvest. In some places, custom called for driving the spirit out or destroying it, not sheltering it, but the aim was still to release the spirit from the current harvest so it would return the next year.

Harvesters would make a new corn dolly every year from the last of the straw in the fields. Straw is the stem of the wheat below the kernels of grain. A corn dolly might look vaguely human or might be a heart or other shape. Traditional corn dollies were not very human looking, but dollies made by modern crafters are sometimes more elaborate and have heads and arms.

When older beliefs died out in Europe after the rise of Christianity, people continued to make corn dollies. In Scotland in the 1800s, the dolly was a symbol of ridicule. The farmer who finished harvesting first among his neighbors would make a corn dolly and throw it into the field of one of those still working as a way of making fun of that person. In parts of England, a bundle of straw much like a corn dolly was the center of a harvest festival custom called "crying the neck."

The best straw for dollies and other straw art is hollow and comes from a long stem variety of wheat. Modern wheat varieties have solid stems and are not as suitable for weaving. If straw from older types of wheat cannot be found, solid-stem varieties are usable for simple straw weaving if the stems are long enough. Straw weavers soak the straw in hot water, or soak and then freeze it, to make it more pliable.

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Discussion Comments
By aLFredo — On Sep 29, 2011

Corn dollies seem like a cute, fun craft for children and adults alike. It is a natural art form, so it can be used as a learning tool about ways to help the environment and to use materials already available to us in nature, instead of using unnatural things we have to buy from a store.

Corn dollies would probably be a nice fall decoration piece, and a conversation piece as well. I love making scarecrows in the fall, so this may be something I add to my fall activities. It is cool that you can just burn it when the season is over, for environmental reasons, as well as traditional reasons.

By SarahSon — On Sep 29, 2011

Making corn dollies can be a fun craft for both kids and adults. These can be as simple or elaborate as you want them to be.

I am always looking for some new craft ideas for my grand kids and found several places online where I learned how to make corn dollies.

I was inspired to do this after visiting a craft fair where they had some corn dollies for sale. Many of them were intricate and elaborate and I was fascinated with them.

When I made them with my grand kids, we kept it quite simple, but they loved hearing the history behind them.

By LisaLou — On Sep 28, 2011

When my daughter was young, we attended a fall craft fest and one of the activities was learning how to make a corn dolly.

We used soaked stalks of wheat to make the body of the corn dollies. They were soaked ahead of time so they were easy to work with.

I also remember we used corn husks to make the dresses for the dollies. There were also pieces of raffia we could use as decoration or to hide any wires that were sticking out.

These were simple and easy to make and it was fun learning about the history of them as we were being taught.

We brought our corn dolls home. I'm not sure what ever happened to them, but still have the fun memory of making them.

By Monika — On Sep 28, 2011

@sunnySkys - That sounds like a neat decoration.

My grandmother actually grew up on a farm, and I remember her saying they made corn dollies from straw. I don't think they did it for any superstitious reason at that time, it was just a tradition that had been handed down over the generations.

From what my grandmother tells me, her and her sister would make the dolls. They would play with them for awhile, and then when they got bored they would just throw them into the field. I wonder if they knew that throwing the corn dollies back into the field used to be traditional?

By sunnySkys — On Sep 27, 2011

I think some people do make corn dollies out of corn husks. In fact, if I remember correctly, my mom used to have one in our kitchen when I was growing up.

My mom had the whole kitchen decorated "country" style, and I believe she bought the corn dolly from a specialty store. Of course, she wasn't using it to ensure a successful harvest for the next year, she just liked the way it looked. I have to admit, it was very artfully made.

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