THE WORD MATRYOSHKA is related to the Russian word mat’ meaning "mother." The symbolism is obvious, as each doll has one daughter inside, and then another. However, matryoshka is not a form of the word mat'. Such a related word, matushka (literally, "little mother") does exist, but it generally refers to the wife of a Russian Orthodox priest. "Matryoshka" is actually the diminutive form of the name "Matryona," а relatively common name in rural Russia in the nineteenth century. 

MATRYOSHKA DOLLS are a relatively new phenomenon in the context of Russian history.

Russian matryoshki first appeared in 1899 in the city of Sergiev Posad, about 50 kilometres north of Moscow. The generally accepted story is that a nesting doll was brought to Russia from Japan by a Russian traveller, probably a merchant. The first Russian matryoshki were made during this same period, but it is not known whether this was a coincidence or the result of the Japanese influence. In any case, matryoshki were introduced into a fertile artistic soil and a long tradition of woodworking. Once the seeds were planted, village artists quickly nurtured matryoshki into becoming the symbol of Russia that they are today.
For centuries, the Sergiev Posad region has been known for its folk art. To this day, neigh-boring villages such as Abramtsevo, Khotkovo, and Bogorodskoye enjoy a similar reputation. Legend has it that the first Sergiev Posad toy was made in the thirteenth century by St. Sergius of Radonezh, for whom the city was named, and who founded the most important landmark in Sergiev Posad, the Trinity-Sergiev Monastery. Whether or not that legend is true, the early Sergiev Posad toys were typically carved renditions of animals or people, often brightly painted. Records show that the tsar's children received toys from Sergiev Posad as early as 1628. Visitors to the monastery bought toys for their children, much as visitors to museums today buy gifts in museum gift shops.

Sergiev Posad
in this undated photo from early in the 1900s, worker paint carved animals, and wooden heads that were affixed to cloth dolls

By 1880, there were 322 toy workshops in Sergiev Posad, of which 156 worked with papier-mâché or mastic; 43 made carved wooden toys; 28 turned toys on a lathe; and 95 worked with a variety of materials. There were fourteen toy stores in the city and two wholesale warehouses. To assist the craftsmen of Sergiev Posad, in 1885 the Moscow District Council opened the Trade and Industry Museum of Handcrafted Items, also known as the Folk Art Museum. This museum, located in Moscow, was to be a coordinating organisation for the craftsmen of the Moscow guberniya (the equivalent of an American state), modelled after similar organisations in western Europe. As one of the centres of handcrafted art, Sergiev Posad would be the beneficiary of several of the museum's decisions to support the development of regional crafts.
The district соипсЦ opened an educational toy workshop in 1891. Five years later, Sergei Morozov, a major donor to the Folk Art Museum, constructed a building to house this workshop. Morozov was a wealthy merchant whose cousin
Ivan was known for bringing the works of the western European impressionists to Russia. (The Morozov mansion in Moscow, located near the Kremlin, now houses the Pushkin Museum.)
In 1896, the workshop had fifteen masters and ten students. After their education, the students would return home to practice their craft.

Sergiev Posad
Artists and teachers from the Zemstvo Toy and Art Workshop in Sergiev Posad 1912