As grandparents to a 3-year-old, my husband and I have been spending our weekends in a new pastime - new for us. We have been building a dollhouse for our granddaughter.
The reason is neither complicated nor original. The dollhouse my daughters grew up with is one of her favorite toys. She spends hours arranging the furniture and ordering the lives of its inhabitants (mostly horses - more about that later). The thinking was that it was time she should have a home of her own.
I grew up with a dollhouse. It was a Christmas present when I was very young. I remember my father and my brothers going into the basement for hours. When I asked my mother what they were doing, and if I could join them, she replied, "They are smoking in there, and you're allergic to smoke." I was young enough to accept this without questioning why my brothers - the eldest was about 12 at the time - would be smoking.
The dollhouse was under the tree on Christmas morning. I was thrilled. It was a single story dollhouse, mounted on a turning platform and being round, each room would open from the center. The garden was "paved" with stone design contact paper, there were plastic bushes and benches. The kitchen had drawers that opened, with tiny forks and knives. There was a bath tub in the bathroom, and the living room was wall papered and had pictures on the wall. My brothers had contributed with stamps from their collection; they had framed them and hung them on the wall. I was totally entranced. However, my first action was to remove the people, and to fill the house with cows and horses. Over the next years I would play with it for hours and hours.
When I was 12, I donated my dollhouse to a little girl who had lost all her toys in a fire. I never regretted giving it to someone who would really appreciate it. But I have missed it.
My father also made our daughters' dollhouse. He brought it to Turkey in pieces and put the pieces together. My eldest daughter played with the dolls and furniture, but was lackadaisical about it. My youngest, who could have been no more than three, took out the human residents and filled it with horses and cows. It must be genetic. She too spent hours sitting and playing with the house.
There is a fascination in a dollhouse - the possibilities, the stories that you can spin and the lives you can control - this is the basic attraction.
But what is the history of the dollhouse?
It seems to all have started with one Duke from Bavaria, Albert V. He commissioned a copy of his own house, and used it to display his power. Many wealthy people made miniature versions of their homes, filling them with glorious objects, as a means to show off wealth. Quite often these houses would cost as much as a full sized version.
The German word for this object was dockenhaus. This does not translate as dollhouse, but rather as "miniature house." And this was not a toy. As these houses were basically cabinets, the front of which opened up, they were used to display expensive objects, or to hide expensive objects from over inquisitive eyes.
There is another German word that was used for such arrangements - the wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities).
Another example of an early dollhouse, dating a bit later, 1673, is the Nuremburg House. This is rather different from Albert's, being not such a display of wealth or power. The Nuremburg House is set out with pots, pans, plates, et cetera. This house was not a means of displaying the wealth which the owner had attained, or the wealth they desired to attain. Rather, the Nuremburg House had a pedagogic function. The class from which servants were drawn were not educated at this time, and the easiest way to instruct them about the functions and places in a large house was to have a graphic, hands-on instructional tool.
It wasn't until the 19th century that dollhouses became toys. Still it was only the wealthy who played with them; it cost a great deal of money to pay for the house and its objects to be made by hand. And having the luxury to have room to put in a large toy and to have the time to play with it was also something only the wealthier sectors of society possessed.
With the mass production that arrived with the industrial revolution, dollhouses trickled down to the middle classes.
There were famous manufacturers of dollhouses in Germany, America and the U.K. In the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood one can see some examples of fine dollhouses. One of them is the Tate House, built in the mid-18th century. This is modeled on a house in Dorset, but was updated in the Victorian age by its new owners.
Another historic dollhouse is the Killer Cabinet House, commissioned by Dr. J.E. Killer in 1835. His wife and daughters enjoyed making miniature household objects.
A third house is the Amy Miles House, which is dated to the late 19th century. This house has a school room and artist's studio.
In the 1920s Queen Mary was presented with a dollhouse. The house was designed by a famous architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens. In response to this commission, Lutyens stated, "Let us devise and design for all time, something which will enable future generations to see how a King and Queen lived in the twentieth century, and what authors, artists and craftsmen of note there were, during their reign."
Approximately 1,500 people were involved in making this dollhouse, from craftsmen to artists. The names involved include many famous companies, such as Singer, Cartier, Doulton and Rolls Royce. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a novel from the library - the book is on the same scale as the house, 1/12. The house was exhibited in the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. This house is still on display in Windsor Castle.
In the 1930s, dollhouses started to be mass produced. This was the boom time for the miniature house. There were even models with plumbing and working vacuum cleaner.
Jenny's Home, which came out in the 1960s was sold as prefabricated construction and parents could buy each room separately, and then the furniture.
In 1962, a textile designer, Betty Pinney, bought a 19th century dollhouse. She refurbished it, trying to achieve the perfection which she could not, according to her daughter Susanna, achieve in real life. Pinney was obsessed with details even specifying that "the butler should have a paunch and the footman calves to his legs."
Today it is easy to build your own dollhouse. Perhaps it is not so easy to get companies like Cartier and Rolls Royce to lend a hand, but ordering materials and furniture, from wall paper to toilets, online is extremely easy. And there are a number of online companies in Turkey which cater to the amateur dollhouse maker. Dollhouses - be they grand like the wunderkammer and Queen Mary's house, or simple like Jenny's home, all have one thing in common. They allow the owner to create an ideal environment. It gives one a sense of control over what is going to happen, and this is something children dearly desire. Adults enjoy the dollhouse for the same reason - it presents the possibility of being able to achieve perfection, to control what happens around us.
I have a sneaky feeling that not only will my granddaughter enjoy playing with the dollhouse when it is finished, but me, her grandfather, aunt, mother, father, just about everyone will want to have some time to create their perfect world.