Dollhouses: Tiny Wonders

By Karen Parr-Moody

 

The photo at right doesn't depict a real castle, amazingly, but rather the world’s most famous dollhouse, that of Queen Mary (1867-1953), the wife of King George V. Finished in 1924, it has running water and electricity, along with a child’s fantasy of miniature furnishings, many of them Windsor Castle items scaled to 1/12 their original size. 

 

Reaching farther back in time, one discovers the earliest European dollhouse on record. It was commissioned by Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria, around 1558 for his daughter. However, when this four-story masterpiece was finished, the duke found it so lovely that he placed it in his art collection rather than let his child mishandle it with a child’s typical abandon. Among its rooms were a larder, wine cellar, ballroom, chapel and more. (Can you imagine his daughter’s disappointment?)

 

By the 17th and 18th centuries, such extravagant playthings for adults were dubbed “baby houses” or “cabinet houses.” As with the Duke of Bavaria, these were enjoyed by adults rather than children. They were also used as a means to display the owner’s good taste; this was particularly true of the Dutch, who excelled at creating such artisan works. Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse is one such example (photo, left; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). During the period of about 1686 to 1710, this wealthy Dutch woman ordered miniature porcelain from China in addition to commissioning an array of cabinetmakers, glassblowers and silversmiths to fill her dollhouse with fine miniature furnishings.  

 

It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century that dollhouses actually came into the hands of children who might play in them with dolls. An early American example of one was made by Caspar Morris of Philadelphia around 1820 for his granddaughters (photo, right). Done in the European “cabinet” style, it includes miniature Empire furniture and shuttered windows. It was enjoyed by generations of family members until being donated to the Folk Art Center of Colonial Williamsburg, where it remains as a rare example of an early, high quality American dollhouse.

 

In modern times, miniature lovers can choose to decorate a dollhouse for one’s children or for oneself. The items available with which to decorate such a habitat are endlessly charming, from miniature Syroco mirrors to Dorothy Draper Espana chests to Ladurée’s St. Honoré cakes topped with red currants (photo, left; cakes available at http://www.etsy.com/shop/ParisMiniatures).  

 

Modern dollhouse owners can’t welcome visitors with tiny oil paintings of royal ancestors, as did Queen Mary, but modern miniatures still offer more than a teensy bit of glamor. Take, for example, this chair available at GasLamp Too (photo, right; vintage chair, $12.95 at Booth T-275). Made in Japan, it would bring some shabby chic to any miniature cottage.

 

If you don’t have a dollhouse, there’s a great vintage one at GasLamp Too that includes three stories of charm. It is filled with quaint furniture, including a high-back piano, bentwood rockers and a tiny backgammon board. Notice that the father, photo left, is lounging among many pieces of tiny furniture. What fun!

 

There’s a singular beauty of owning a dollhouse as an adult: While one might not be able to afford every décor item in its life-size form, buying such for a dollhouse is more cost effective. Just imagine hosting a grand affair in such a house, complete with miniature caviar, oysters and Ladurée cakes – and no dishwashing afterward!

 

 

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