By Karen Gonzalez
Miniature houses furnished with tiny decorations have fascinated us for thousands of years. The earliest examples of these scaled-down rooms were found in Egyptian tombs, complete with tiny replicas of servants, furnishings, livestock and even pets.
The earliest known dollhouses were fine handcrafted works of art, as opposed to children’s toys. These cabinets were typically one-room display cases, and were strictly off-limits to children.
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The World Made Small exhibit will be on display through Jan. 3, 2017.
Here is more information about the current exhibits at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.
Colonial Williamsburg has also explored the miniature world in a book called “Dollhouses Miniature Kitchens and Shops.”
“In the 17th century, dollhouses were sometimes called baby houses. They were small-scale houses that a lady could decorate with fancy miniatures. It was very much an adult, decorative art item,” said Jan Gilliam, manager of exhibition planning and associate curator of toys at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
An exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum highlights this small world, where the little things really matter.
Not until the latter part of the 18th century did baby houses slowly transform into something that children were actually allowed to play with. By the 1820s, a dollhouse, complete with furnishings and accessories, was a common toy for a child.
Sometimes dollhouses also come with a family history.
The earliest dollhouse in the art museum collection dates to 1820. The Morris-Canby-Rumford dollhouse was built for twin girls, Elizabeth and Sarah, when they were about 7 years old. After Sarah’s death in 1826, Elizabeth inherited the family treasure. It was passed from generation to generation until 1981, when it was donated to the Foundation. It’s now on display at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.
The amount of detail in the miniature house is astounding.
One tiny chest cabinet exactly matches a full-sized cabinet that the family owned – and later donated to the art museums. The Rumford dollhouse even contains miniature portraits of the family. The large doors close to the front of the cabinet, and are painted to make it look just like the original house in Philadelphia.
“Having toys in which you know who played with them and the family history is really exciting,” Gilliam said.
The Long Island Dollhouse is one of the largest in the collection and it has virtually no known family history.
But it too has an interesting story.
A contractor was taking a last walk through a house in Long Island just prior to demolition and saw this remarkably large dollhouse in the attic. He stopped the wrecker ball, carefully removed the dollhouse and sold it to F.A.O. Schwarz, New York’s leading toy seller at that time. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation purchased it from F.A.O. Schwarz in 1969. The dollhouse is more than 12 feet long, with doors connecting the 12 rooms, windows and a large formal stairway connecting the two floors.
“It did not come with many furnishings, so over the years the folk art museum has collected appropriate miniatures from the late 19th – and early 20th-century timeframe,” Gilliam said. “Some of our artistic volunteers have painted miniatures of a few of the portraits in the collection. In the corner of the living room are miniature portraits of Washington and Lafayette, copied from originals hanging in the art museum. It even has an extra tool shed and servant’s kitchen.”
One of the best things about The World Made Small exhibit is that it includes all kinds of toys, including some that boys (big and small) would find interesting.
Toy trains, alphabet blocks, farm sets and soldiers are on display. Many adults have fond memories of playing with these kinds of toys as children. Each set includes objects reminiscent of the world that surround it – the countryside, farms, houses and trees – making them complete play sets for children.
What is it about this tiny world that fascinates us so?
Perhaps the world of miniature toys is a simple place to escape. The charm of this miniature world is the low-tech fantasy world. It’s not batteries that powers these toys, but rather the imagination.