The concept of nesting dolls has an extensive history going back at least 900 years. Nested folk boxes were first invented in China about 1000 A.D. In the early 1800's the Chinese first created wooden nesting dolls as we know them today. The early Chinese sets were thinly turned and grotesquely lacquered. The smallest doll in the set was a grain of rice. The development of nesting dolls was furthered considerably in Russian as the concept spread West. In the latter part of the 19th century, Russia artist Sergei Malyutin sketched the first Russian nested doll. Master carver V. Zveydochin turned the dolls on a wood lathe, while Malyutin painted the first set himself. These pioneering Zveydochin Matryoshka dolls are on permanent display at the Museum of Toys in Zagorsk. The Matryoshka's popularity extended beyond the borders of that country after being displayed in the Paris World Exposition in 1900. A few years later, Yevgenny Bezrukov created a set of 70 dolls, hand carved from a lime tree. This set has been exhibited at three World's Fairs. In the 1920's, exports of nesting dolls from Russia increased dramatically with the opening of a major production center in Zagorsk. About this same time, nesting dolls were being made by German toymakers in and around Munich. The craft did not flourish there, but continued to prosper in Russia and Poland. It wasn't until the late 1950's and early 1960's that the Soviet dolls became well known outside their own country. In more recent years, other countries have "flattered" the Russians by imitating the nesting dolls, while introducing distinctive characteristics reflective of their own cultures.
Nesting dolls are most often made of lathe turned hardwoods. In the past, some sets were hand-carved. A few plastic sets can even be found. However, hand painted wooden sets most effectively reveal the artisan's skill and are the most desirable. Nesting dolls characteristically split in half to reveal another, smaller doll, and yet another diminishing size.
Nesting dolls are primarily sought out by adult collectors. The Russian types are particularly popular with adults since they are very artistic,
detailed, delicate and varied. Yet children also love the Russian dolls. They enjoy nesting and un-nesting the sets, arranging and rearranging them for hours.