Posted in Dolls

by Ruby Lane

Mrs. James Ward Thorne was the driving force behind the creation of at least 97 room boxes which replicated furnished interiors of various periods.

The world as seen in miniature has always been a source of fascination for the human spirit. From the most rudimentary representation in playthings, to the complex miniaturized communities used in some ancient societal rituals, to the elaborate miniature wonders created for the ruling classes, miniatures have been enjoyed and studied by both men and women.

By the 17th century the collecting of miniature objects became a full-fledged hobby among the wealthy women of the Netherlands. Tiny, realistic, carefully crafted objects were showcased in cabinets. Over time these cabinets evolved into what we would now call dollhouses and room boxes.

For the modern collector the allure of the room box can be enticing, allowing for the expression of many different decorative styles or perfectly presenting a particular moment in time or a beloved activity. But beware, they can also be highly addictive, with each new box created leading to thoughts of the next project!

The passion for creating these small snapshots of life and design have been enjoyed and promoted by many skilled artists and artisans over the past century. One such artist was Mrs. James Ward Thorne of Chicago, Illinois. Born Narcissa Niblack in 1882 in Vincennes, Indiana, Thorne’s family moved to Chicago’s Hyde Park area when she was young. At age nineteen she married her childhood sweetheart James Thorne who was an heir to the Montgomery Ward estate. The Thornes and their two sons lived in Chicago and summered on their estate in Lake Forest, IL.

Mrs. Thorne had loved miniatures as a child, delighting in pieces her uncle brought her from his travels. As a young woman she began to use her artistic talents to create dollhouses which she gave to young family members and friends and to children’s wards in hospitals. These were often simple in design and furnished with the available miniatures of the day, which she customized with paint and appliques. 

Although Mrs. Thorne is best associated with her realistic room boxes, she did enjoy making doll houses for family and friends. This house from the late 1940s has provenance from its original owner relating that it was given to her by Mrs. Thorne. It was furnished with commercially available pieces, many of which were embellished by Thorne.
Though simple in design and execution there are many of Mrs. Thorne’s artistic touches throughout this house including her hand painted kitchen window with curtains.

In 1926 her husband retired from the family business and the couple enjoyed world travel. On their journey’s Narcissa acquired antique miniatures and was exposed to historic dollhouses such as Queen Mary’s dollhouse. An article which appeared in the January 1939 issue of Yankee magazine interviewed Frank Battastini who related an account of Mrs. Thorne’s visit to The Toy Furniture Shop in Providence, RI where Frank worked. This shop was the home to the business which created the Early American dollhouse furnishings known as Tynietoy

Mrs. Thorne’s room designs used a number of techniques to enhance the feeling of looking into a real room. This “American Room” includes a dimensional fireplace and a stairway to an imagined second floor winding out of view. Photo courtesy of Wiederseim Associates, Inc. auctioneers, Chester Springs, PA. 

Miniatures expert and researcher Flora Gill Jacobs relates that Thorne’s first foray into creating a realistic room box was inspired by 6 antique miniature pieces she purchased in Rome. These were the inspiration pieces used in her “Renaissance Venetian Room.” From this first room box Thorne would go on to create a wide range of period interiors in a 1″ to 1′ scale. She began with her own basic design sketches and then worked with a cadre of talented artisans to bring her ideas to life. She designed the miniature needlework and supplied the antique pieces from her own collection as well as commissioning furniture and accessories from leaders in the growing miniatures community.

One such artisan was Eugene Kupjack of Chicago. Kupjack was studied at Crane College, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He also served as a Lt. Commander in the research department of the US Navy during WWII and went on to design and patent several surgical devices.  In various interviews Kupjack often related the story of his first involvement with Mrs. Thorne’s projects. In 1936 he read an interview in which Mrs. Thorne mentioned the difficulty she was having in finding well made, properly scaled caned furniture for one of her rooms as well as trouble getting quality glassware for her scenes. Kupjack fashioned a chair with a caned seat, a plate and a goblet and sent them to Thorne. 

Queen Anne sitting room created by Eugene Kupjack. Photo courtesy of Ron Rhoades Auctioneers.

Mrs. Thorne was delighted not only with the finished products but also with Eugene’s ingenuity in solving the design problems she was facing. Thus, began a working relationship which led to Kupjack’s work on 37 of Thorne’s early room boxes.

In 1952 Kupjack chose to make his work on miniatures his full-time occupation working from his Park Ridge studio. He made countless miniatures for collectors and other artisans to use in their room boxes and dollhouses as well as creating approximately 700 room boxes himself. In addition to the rooms he collaborated on with Thorne he also took commissions from museums, made 17 rooms for the American Institute of Decorators, and fulfilled private commissions. 

There was even a View-Master 3-D set featuring Kupjack’s work that was produced in the early 1990s. These discs featured Thorne rooms and some of the last room boxes created by this talented artist. These sets are somewhat difficult to find today. 

Another artist who called upon Kupjack’s talents in the creation of her series of miniature rooms was Ruth B. McChesney (1915 – 2004) of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. McChesney worked as a photographer in NYC. Specializing in magazine covers and children’s portraits before moving to Pittsburg with her husband. After raising her family her artistic nature turned to creating miniature room boxes which have been described as “virtual snapshots.” She collaborated on the design of these projects with Dick Smith who was an interior designer and miniature painter. 

Author Anne Day Smith wrote numerous books on miniature topics including one on McChesney’s work. Published by Kalmback this book can be obtained on the secondary market today.

As mentioned, like Thorne before her, McChesney engaged the services of specialist miniaturists in creating her period rooms. She herself was a highly skilled needleworker and personally created most of the 1″ to 1′ miniature carpets, draperies and needlepoint screens used in her settings. Her work was included in the collections of museums such as the Carnegie Museum of Art, Winterthur, the Westmorland Art Museum, and the American Museum in Bath, England. She was a member of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans.

Ruth’s very fine needlepoint skills are evident in this example of one of her room boxes. The room is now in the collection of the Carnegie Museum. Photo: Photolitherland / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Working during the same period as Thorne and McChesney was another talented miniaturist named George Henri LeClerc (1894 to 1972) from New Bedford, Massachusetts. After serving from the armed forces during WWI he trained at the Rhode Island School of Design in a special program for veterans. He then found work with the fledgling Toy Furniture Shop in Providence, RI where he became an integral part of this company which produced the Tynietoy miniatures line. He eventually became chief production manager for the company and employed his drafting skills to create the templates for the manufacturing of the wooden dollhouse items designed by the company owners. 

An 8″ tall Kestner mold 143 looks quite at home with a 1/8th scale LeClerc chair. On the left is a newspaper image of LeClerc at work in his shop.

In 1938 LeClerc left The Toy Furniture Shop and went on to create his own line of miniatures, making not only furniture but most especially room boxes of period interiors. Where Tynietoy furniture replied on painted representations of carved wood details and upholstery LeClerc’s pieces employed actual carving and although he used painted seats on some of his chairs, most had actual fabric glued on to mimic upholstery. His wife Theresa did much of the needlework and upholstery seen in his room boxes and on his furnishings. LeClerc worked in scales of 1.5″ to 1′ as well 1″ to 1′. LeClerc liked to work in mahogany and walnut and his room boxes generally used a 3-wall and floor construction with glass tops and fronts held in place with wooden framing.

Two framed photos show LeClerc rooms as displayed as part of an exhibit held in
Providence, RI.

In the 1940s LeClerc rooms were exhibited at large department stores in the RI and MA area including Jordan Marsh in Boston and the Outlet in Providence. LeClerc passed away in 1972 and in the later part of the 1970s numerous pieces of his work found their way into the New England antiques market as family members began to disseminate items from the family home. When found today examples of his pieces of furniture make wonderful additions to doll displays and complete room boxes are treasures indeed. 

In addition to his room boxes, LeClerc also created creche scenes. These were installed in his usual wood framed boxes with glass front and top panels for full viewing. The outside of his creche was made to resemble stone blocks, the figures used inside were purchased from the shops of the era.

Room boxes can transport the viewer into realms they might never experience in real life and make wonderful backdrops for those who collect small dolls. This area in the crafting and collecting worlds is vibrant today with an ever-growing number of artists and enthusiasts joining in the fun inspired by some of the pioneers in this most interesting field.

Even amateur enthusiasts such as this author can enjoy creating room boxes like this miniature doll collection room.

Author – Linda Edward

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