Dolls' Houses: A History and Collector's Guide by Moi Ali
As a kid, I longed for a dolls’ house. Growing up in a one-parent family, money was tight and my dream of owning one had to wait several decades – until my forties, to be precise. Some might find it strange to hear of an adult buying a toy, but most collectors of dolls’ houses and miniatures don’t regard dolls’ houses as playthings, but as historic or artistic miniature buildings containing authentically-styled, scaled and period furnishings. In fact, the very first dolls’ houses were also aimed at adults.
Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria commissioned the Munich Baby House, the first recorded dolls’ house, in 1557. A “baby” house was not a house for babies or children, nor even a baby or small house. This one was a four storey miniaturised version of one of his grand ducal residences. With a garden, stable, barn and dairy, it was positively palatial. Sadly it was destroyed by fire in 1674.
The world’s earliest surviving dolls’ house is on display in Bavaria. Dating to 1611, it is in the German National Museum in Nuremburg. Other early dolls’ houses are also in that museum, including the Stromer House, dating to 1639, and two later 17th century houses, the Kress House and the Baumler House. In the UK, a Nuremburg house dating to 1673 can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in London.
Exquisite replica houses commissioned from the finest craftsmen were proudly displayed in the grand mansions of Germany, Holland and Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries. These bijou buildings contained fine furnishings, paintings, porcelain, silverwares and everything else that could be found in a stately home at that time. These baby houses served an educational purpose, teaching aristocratic girls the basics of running a grand house and keeping servants.
Dutch baby houses were not what we would recognise today as dolls’ houses. They were effectively cabinets containing furnished miniature rooms, and are referred to as cabinet houses for that reason. Early Dutch houses can be seen in Utrecht (Petronella de la Court’s cabinet house of around 1670); and in Amsterdam, Petronella Dunois’ 1676 house.
Early British dolls’ houses were also in cabinet form, although by the 18th century, we adopted the German taste for a more architectural style of dolls’ house. The earliest surviving British house, Ann Sharp’s Baby House of around 1695, is privately-owned and in the form of a cupboard rather than a house.
Some say that these early miniature buildings were called baby houses because they were baby or small versions of big houses. Others take the view that as dolls were known at that time as babies, a house for dolls would be known as a baby house.
Dolls’ houses enjoyed their heyday during the Victorian era. Mass production meant that instead of having to employ a skilled carpenter to produce a bespoke miniature building, families could walk into a toy shop and buy a more affordable machine-made dolls’ house. Hamley’s iconic Regent Street toy shop opened in 1881, and all big towns and cities would have a toy store of some sort.
Dolls’ houses could also be purchased mail order, using the relatively new postal service. A newspaper advert from 1888 advertised Dimple Villa, “A real doll’s house for one shilling”. Postage and carriage for this flat-pack house would set you back another 4d!
The manufacturer of Dimple Villa, London-based Hinde’s, had a range of popular shilling toys. Its shilling dolls’ house was advertised as a “quite wonderful toy for the money”, being “a most attractive double fronted residence” with “imitation red brick and stone facings, bay windows, green Venetian blinds.” We think of Victorian dolls’ houses as a taste of nostalgia, but to the Victorians these houses were bang up-to-date. The shilling house had “interior decoration all in the modern style. Dados, bright wallpapers &c.”
The popularity of dolls’ houses created a market for affordable miniature furniture, furnishings and other items. Many were made by small family businesses in Britain and Germany, and may have been produced as a cottage industry using exploited child labour. Home-made items were also incorporated, some crafted by doting parents and others by the girls who owned the dolls’ houses. The average Victorian twelve-year-old girl was quite an accomplished needlewoman, well able to sew a small pair of curtains, make bedding and create a little tapestry rug.
The mother of all dolls’ houses is Queen Mary’s, created for her by the renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens between 1921 and 1924. It has electricity, running water and functioning lifts. It contains Doulton and Wedgwood porcelain; oil paintings by respected artists; crystal chandeliers and marble-topped gilt wood tables; and a library of original books by prominent authors including Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and Sir James Barrie. (Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw refused to write miniature books for the Queen.) Each tiny book has a bookplate drawn by E.H. Shepherd, illustrator of Winnie the Pooh.
Well into the 20th century, mass production did not lead to the extinction of home-made dolls’ houses. Fathers and grandfathers continued to make bespoke little (and not so little) houses for their daughters and granddaughters – and still make them, to this day, in sheds and garages across the land.
Some of these home-made dolls’ houses tell a story of social history. A modernist dolls’ house in the Jewish Museum, London, was made by the son of an East End furniture maker for his daughter. Based on an actual house in Angmering-on-Sea, it demonstrates the aspirations of a Jewish community growing up in cramped housing in London’s East End. During the interwar period they started to build new communities in the suburbs, which offered more space and better housing.
The Art Deco house of the 1930s was striking for its angular departure from the traditional, fussy Victorian and Edwardian styles. Streamlined houses in white, with the air of ocean liners, typified the era. The clean lines synonymous with Deco were reflected in mass-produced miniature houses such as the Number 53 by Tri-ang.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, there was a trend for home-built houses – not scratch-built, but models constructed at home using either commercially-available plans from leading companies such as Hobbies, or dolls’ house kits. Hobbies also sold components such as doors and windows, which could be incorporated into home-made houses for a more professional finish. Up until the 1960s, dolls’ houses were made from wood, sometimes with tin components such as windows.
By the 1960s and ‘70s, plastic was being widely used in dolls’ house production, and by the 1980s, MDF too – although quality dolls’ houses have always been constructed from wood, and timber continues to be used today.
In the 1980s, dolls’ house collecting (antique, vintage and new) became an increasingly popular adult pursuit. So when I bought my first one in the late 1990s, I was following a growing trend that continues today.
Moi Ali's new book Dolls' Houses: A History and Collector's Guide is available for purchase now.