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A brief history of Dolls’ Houses

Dolls’ Houses, for centuries, have been providing educational recreation and enjoyment for their fortunate owners.Originally, fine craftsmen were commissioned by wealthy patrons to produce replicas of outstanding interiors in miniature. The earliest example was probably the house made for a Bavarian Duke, Albert V, in the sixteenth century. Not many were able to afford such a splendid display, and the ‘cupboard dolls’ house‘ evolved, in which to display miniature room settings.

Later, it was fashionable to use a dolls’ house as a means of demonstrating household management. By the Victorian era, mass-production meant that the nurseries were equipped with fully-furnished dolls’ houses, and they became a toy. The finest example of a dolls’ house must surely be Queen Mary’s, on view at Windsor Castle, and designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. Many craftsmen donated their work to decorate and furnish the interior of the house, and even the linen is monogrammed. The splendid result is not only a wonder to behold, but also an accurate record of life in a stately home in the early twentieth century. At about the same time, Mrs James Ward Thorne, who resided in America but travelled widely and visited country homes and castles in Europe, indulged her childhood passion for collecting miniatures and built up an impressive collection.

By the 1930s, Mrs Thorne, assisted by the depression and the requirement of wealthy families to liquidate certain assets, had been able to acquire miniatures at advantageous prices – so many, in fact that it became necessary to rent a studio in which to house the collection. Mrs Thorne then decided to create miniature rooms in which to display her collection. Mrs Thorne’s talent for producing miniature interiors, albeit with assistance from friends and craftsmen, proved to be immense and in 1932 the first set of 30 rooms was put on display at the Chicago Historical Society. Unfortunately this set of rooms was presented to The Institute of Art in Chicago in 1940 who, shortly afterwards, sold it to the IBM Corporation. After years of being on tour, the rooms were spotted in a store window by Mrs Thorne’s son, who arranged to have them returned to her for refurbishment. The Thorne Rooms are now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Although ready-made displays of the standard of the Thorne Rooms and antique dolls’ houses are difficult to find and fetch high prices at auctions, it is not necessary to spend a lot to enjoy the hobby. Many items can be made (Blue Peter style!) from household objects – the difficulty is recognising what, at full size, can be made into a perfect 1:12 scale miniature. An artistic and inventive approach is necessary and the results can be spectacular. Whatever your age, there’s always a certain fascination in miniatures. Nearly everyone can remember using small-scale playthings as a child, whether dolls, model cars, model railways, soldiers or replica pots and pans, tea sets and so on. The fine replicas available today are not only a reminder of our childhood but also an historic exhibit.

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