History of Dollhouses

The history of the dollhouse dates back to the 16th century when the first known miniature house was built for Albert V, a Bavarian Duke. A replica of the Duke's own home, this first dollhouse was labeled as a "baby house." A trend was born among the upper class, as many of the gentry began to commission their own dollhouse. At this time, the dollhouse was not a toy but a piece of art and a symbol of affluence.

The dollhouse can be a wonderful three-dimensional documentation of history. It can tell an observer about a specific era with its architecture, interior design, art, and the way it depicts daily life. In the 17th and 18th centuries, dollhouses were most popular in the countries of England, Germany, and Holland. The dollhouses of this time reflected the daily lives of their owners and were often used as a tool to teach young girls the proper way to run an estate.

The English dollhouse artisans created the structures to be replicas of the owner's home and often contained small art objects. The Nostell Priory baby house, made for Lady Winn, stood 84-inches tall and contained Chippendale chairs, a silver tea set and a vibrant Chinese wall panel. This dollhouse can still be seen on display in Yorkshire, England.

The German dollhouses were similar. For example, Stromer House, a German dollhouse built in 1639, featured several intricately-decorated rooms, including one with a dining table that was set with porcelain cups and bone-handled utensils. This multi-roomed piece of history was presented to the Germanisches National Museum in 1879 and is still there today.

Dutch dollhouses or "poppenhuis" of the 17th and 18th centuries were generally cabinet houses. The "poppenhuis" was a showpiece for a wealthy Dutch woman. A famous example is Petronella Oortman's cabinet house, on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. When the house was commissioned in the late 17th century, it cost about $30,000, the same amount it would have cost to build a real house at that time.

By the mid-19th century, dollhouses were becoming more of a toy for children than a piece of art to be displayed and admired. However, a few like the Tiffany-Platt House were showpieces celebrating the art of the miniature. A replica of a New York brownstone, circa 1860, this dollhouse was made from wood and hinged into three sections. It featured lace curtains, an Ormolu-framed rocking chair, chandeliers, gilded mirrors and a fully-equipped kitchen. It is on display at the Washington Dolls' House and Toy Museum in Washington D.C.

The mass production of dollhouses began during the Victorian era and continues today. However, there are two important 20th century dollhouses that were commissioned and created to be masterpieces of miniature displays. In the early 1920s, Sir Edwin Lutyens was tasked with the creation of a showpiece dollhouse for Queen Mary. Completed in 1924, it is on display in Windsor Castle. It took more than 1,500 artisans to create what is known as the world's most famous dollhouse.

In America in 1928, actress Colleen Moore commissioned her own style of dollhouse. Ms. Moore's dollhouse took seven years to complete and was designed to be the embodiment of an enchanted castle. Some of its extravagant miniatures include a solid gold chandelier with diamonds and emeralds and the smallest Bible in the world -- a gift to the actress from her leading man, Antonio Moreno. The Colleen Moore Fairy Castle is on display in Chicago's Science and Industry Museum.

The mass production of dollhouses and miniatures has continued. In the mid-20th century, the Lines Brothers created "modern" designs and sold them in their toy catalog. There was resurgence in dollhouse collecting and miniature display in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Hobby shops stocked several styles of dollhouses and had display cases filled with exquisite miniatures. A favorite style was the Colonial Van Buren dollhouse complete with "widow's walk" atop the roof.

Today, there is still strong interest in the art and hobby of dollhouse creation, display, and miniature collecting. The multiple dollhouse and miniature suppliers online make the hobby accessible to many, and an art form that will be around for a long time.

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