by Cathy Terry, Senior Curator, Social History, Norwich Museums
So, what is it about dolls’ houses then? Why are so many people, once hooked, forever captivated by their tiny charms?
For me the pleasure of this enticing world is two-fold. Seeing small versions of everyday things really delights me! But there is something more. Dolls’ houses and dolls’ house furniture somehow speak to us across the generations. The tiny doll glimsped through the window invites us to wonder who she belonged to, how she su
rvived generations of family play without getting lost or broken, whether she had a name, who stitched her tiny gown….. and just thinking about the phenomenon of miniature houses and how they have evolved over a few hundred years, helps me ponder on changing times and reflect on what is important to us now. To elaborate a little…..
Dolls’ houses have been viewed and appreciated from many perspectives over time: the earliest surviving examples demonstrate show their former owner’s wealth and status. Dutch cabinet houses consist of exquisite collections of finest craftmanship whilst early German ‘baby houses’ helped young girls to acquire a grasp of household management to prepare them for their future adult roles. In the mid-twentieth century particularly, they were the pinnacle of a young girls’s aspiration. As home ownership became more possible for adults so ‘a dolls’ house of your very own’ signified a certain status. Dolls’ houses have featured in numerous children’s books, for example those of E.S. Nesbitt and Rumer Godden. The context is generally a positive one : that of allowing children to achieve a measure of control and order in the creation of their own idealised miniature world. By contrast in adult literature, the dolls’ house is frequently used as a metaphor for a constrained and inward-looking lifestyles, and plays with the ‘strange’ness of dolls and juxtapositions of scale to suggest creepiness or heighten a sense of fear.
Dolls’ houses are no less fascinating to present generations. Artists have employed dolls’ house references in their work, sometimes to unsettle or challenge mainstream readings or arrangements. Studies of children’s play have explored the role of the dolls’ house in the development of gender identity, and psychologists and therapists use doll’s houses as a tool in exploring aspects of family life and relationships and therapeutic play. In collecting terms, antique doll’s houses were little sought after until the 1950s, but with impetus given by collecting pioneers such as Constance E. King and Vivien Greene, serious interest and connoisseurship developed and has continued unabated. Organisations such as the Dolls’ House Society provide scholarly debate on dolls’ house history. As the traditional dolls’ house wanes a little as an object of desire for children so the craft of miniaturisation flourishes, as the demand from today’s adult owners /collectors continues to expand. There are currently an astonishing 450 or so British businesses involved in the dolls’ house trade and countless miniaturist fairs taking place up and down the country.
Another avenue of investigation is the manufacture of dolls’ houses, their interiors and furnishings, as products of crafts people, manufacture or family creativity. Who made the houses themselves, and were they modelled on particular buildings or generic building forms? Were they, as we often read, made by estate carpenters? The making of objects specifically for dolls’ houses starts with individual crafts such as pewterers making miniatures their vessels to produce exquisite tiny versions of life-sized pieces that formed their usual stock in trade.
As their popularity grew, so particular regions began to cater for the demand, such Thuringian woodcarvers and their families who specialised in making thousands of sets of tiny turned wooden tableware or tiny jointed dolls. Such goods in turn made their way via the European trade routes eventually into the grand London arcades, where they were sold by specialist toy-men. A century later large companies were making dolls’ houses and furniture on a more industrial scale, using transfer decoration rather than hand-finishing on their goods. In the late 19th and early twentieth century an increasing affluence brought top-of-the-range toys like dolls’ houses within the reach of middle-class families. Those with wood-working skills but less money to spend on a ready-made could also aspire to make their own versions for their children, using patterns published in the popular hobby magazines.
The twenty-first century has seen a rapid expansion of toy types, technology and availability. The idea of the play house has morphed a little but is still massively popular. Play embraces both construction of a home and playing house. Early construction sets such as those developed by Metamek enabled would be builders to make their own mini buildings, and with the launch of the Lego brick in 1958, one didn’t need too much technical skill to achieve the satisfaction of creating a reasonably presentable building. The traditional popularity of dolls was augmented by the new fashion and character dolls and Sindy, Barbie and Action Man required homes, furniture and possessions . The concepts of designing, arranging, setting out a home remains a mainstay of toy manufacturer, whether the home be intended for a Sylvanian animal family, a My Little Pony, or a Playmobile pirate gang. To this we can now add the digital creation of homes and living spaces, which forms an integral part, though not a main aim, of games such as The Sims and Animal Crossing. In 2016 Lego figures were the UK’s number 1 best selling toy: a spectacularly successful idea combining combining miniaturisation, affordability and surprise. An army of them have somehow found their way into my home!
So, to summarise, whether as a focus for imaginative play or a means of creating order and having control over your very own world, there are few children today who have not enjoyed playing with mini house or home.
Behind the scenes at the museum
So what of a museum’s collection of dolls’ houses? Who gave them to the museum? What are their stories? What happens to them in the museum? What can looking at them contribute to the discussion?
These are some of the themes we’ll be exploring in this blog over the coming months. We’ll be sharing the work we’ve been carrying out in order to prepare for Small Stories at Strangers’, the roles of our Documentation, Conservation and Display teams and of course the story of our much-loved Norwich Baby House. The dolls who live inside are getting ready to move in and want to tell you their stories. You’ll hear from a variety of contributors, from those of us lucky enough to work with museum collections on a daily basis to people who just love dolls’ houses and want to share their creations. We will be inviting guest posts and gradually adding resources for avid makers, as well as building a picture of our own tiny collections as we discover more about them.