Literally “little matron”, Matryoshka is a diminutive form of Russian female first name “Matryona” — Матрёна — or “Matryosha”. Since 1890, it is the commonly used name of a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another — other names are babushka dolls, stacking dolls, nesting dolls, Russian tea dolls, or Russian dolls. Anyway, despite the fact that nesting dolls gained worldwide exposure and popularity from Russia, there is physical proof that the idea of the nesting of dolls inside one another has existed since the beginning of the first millennium — the Chinese invented the nesting of wooden boxes inside one another in 1000 AD, and their approach soon emigrated to Japan, which they then implemented the idea to create the wooden dolls of their own deities.
The first Russian nested doll set was carved at the Children’s Education Workshop by Vasily Zvyozdochkin and designed and painted by Sergey Malyutin — who was a folk crafts painter in the Abramtsevo estate of Savva Mamontov, a Russian industrialist and patron of arts. It consisted of eight dolls: the outermost was a mother in a traditional dress holding a red-combed rooster, while the inner dolls were her children, girls and a boy, and the innermost a baby. The shape of the biggest doll was inspired by a mother’s portly figure depicting her fertility and her significance as the center of the traditional Russian family. Her ability to carry and conceive her sons and daughters.
The Children’s Education Workshop was closed in the late 1890s, but the tradition of the matryoshka simply relocated to Sergiyev Posad, the Russian city known as a toy-making center since the fourteenth century. Another place that greatly contributed to matryoshka history is the small town of Semyonov, in Nizhny Novgorod province.
Savva Mamontov’s wife, Elizaveta Mamontova, is thought to have played a key part in the matryoshka dolls’ popularity. Many historians believe that she was the one to bring them to the Exposition Universelle, a world fair held in Paris, in 1900, where the toy earned a bronze medal.
Soon after, matryoshka dolls were being made in several places in Russia and shipped around the world, inspiring various versions and fields. Traditional designs are still being followed, but over time the designs and patterns have evolved. Nesting dolls created in the present time can be designed with cartoon characters, political personalities, celebrities, nature, and animals, even customized to someone’s own family.