The first dollhouses on record are probably the Dutch cabinet houses and Nuremburg doll houses, meant more for adults as cabinets of curiosities than for children. The novel The Miniaturist is based on these. One great example that still survives is Mon Plaisir, from the 18th century.
Precipios and elaborate crèches with entire villages outfitted to the last detail are attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but became an entire industry. Those who collect miniature houses and accessories to display at Halloween and Christmas would understand the rage for these miniature, elaborate Nativities. These were religious displays, however, and not toys.
Miniatures appeared even earlier though, and date to the Ancient World, where there are accounts of tiny rooms, tiny vehicles, dishes, animals, and of course, dolls. Some may have been meant as models to accompany the dearly departed to the afterlife as tomb figures and accessories. Others from Asia and Ancient America may have been idols, or even jewels. Some, though, were toys.
Ann Sharp’s Baby House, a gift to Ann from her godmother, Queen Anne, of doll fame, was a toy. Little Ann labeled all the dolls and their roles in the household carefully. To this day, it remains in her family. A World of Doll Houses by Flora Gill Jacobs talks about these wonderful houses and more.
Heiress Huguette Clark included Japanese doll houses and fairytale cottages among in her famous doll collection. She kept an inventory of dollhouse furniture and supplies for them, and also worked on them herself.
We love dollhouses on Ruby Lane for the same reasons collectors do. They certainly teach history, but also promote design skills, inspire interior decorating, teach basic architecture, and advocate good housekeeping and love of home.
History: As with dolls, dollhouses teach us how people lived long ago. Jonathan Swift talks about them in Gulliver’s Travels, and fantastic examples like Queen Mary’s Doll House and Colleen Moore’s Fairy castle are showcases of literature and fine arts, as well as contemporary culture. In the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, Frances Glessner Lee created dioramas that reenacted unsolved crimes, complete with German bisque doll house dolls and tiny knitted accessories she made herself. Lee inspired CSI’s miniature killer.
Design Skills and Interior Decorating: Making a doll house and furnishing it requires some knowledge of design and color theory, as well as a little Feng Shui. There’s a fantastic book called There’s a Decorator in your Doll House (Melanie Kahane, 1969) that is a must for anyone who wants to decorate a dollhouse, or even a real house for that matter!
Architecture: All architects make models of their buildings. They are in perfect scale and perspective, but also, doll houses or miniatures in their own right. They help the architect improve on her own creations and point out where work is still needed. Fairy gardens and even bonsai trees are wonderful ways to learn landscape architecture and horticulture.
Good Housekeeping: Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had her own dolls to love, once said, “Home is the nicest word there is.” Dollhouses give children that sense of home and safety. By caring for their dollhouse, cleaning it, sweeping its floor with miniature brooms, or just rearranging the furniture, children learn to care for their own homes later, and also to solve problems that may arise. In fact, doll houses are often used in therapy sessions with children.
Every doll deserves her house. Mini railroad people, traditional 1 inch, 1-foot scale dolls, Barbie and her play scale friends, Fisher Price Little People, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower from Japan, American Girls, and Sethany Ann and Nicey Melinda of Tasha Tudor’s The Dolls’ Christmas all have their well-loved homes. Most of all, we love doll houses because they transport us to fantastic worlds of our own imagination and creation. There is no end to the miniature worlds we can create with them; no two are alike, but all welcome the collectors who love them. Oops, time to tend that fairy garden!
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