When we think of dollhouses we usually associate the idea with plastic toys made for children. However, in their beginning, dollhouses were actually made for adults.
Dollhouses were made with architectural details and filled with miniature household features. They were off-limits for children, not because of safety concerns for the children but more for the dollhouse. They sometimes had an educational role, teaching children their place and role in the household.
In the 16th century in Holland, Germany and England, ‘baby houses’ the earliest known dollhouses appeared. The baby houses were cabinet display cases made up of rooms. The first dollhouse in Europe was constructed in 1558, in Germany. Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria acquired it for his daughter and because of its grandiosity it eventually made its way into the Duke’s private art collection.
The house was richly decorated with wooden floors, expensive silk fabrics, items made of silver and miniature furniture made of fine woods and ivory. It also had a tiny cellar filled with wine bottles that contained real wine. Unfortunately it was destroyed in a fire in 1647, but the Duke’s detailed inventory records of the house give us insight of what it was like.
As a result of their rather high cost, only the wealthiest members of society could afford them. A dollhouse was a display of wealth and exquisite taste. They were mostly found in royal courts and ducal palaces, or in the homes of rich aristocratic families. A fully furnished dollhouse was worth the cost of a modest full-size house’s construction. Many of the early dollhouses are today part of private collections or in museums.
The early European dollhouses were all unique, constructed by individual craftsmen on a custom basis and they were often a true replica of the owner’s real house. The precision and finesse with which the furnishings were built are fascinating. Dollhouses not only contained proper replicas of life-size furniture, curtains or carpets, but also miniature versions of books, paintings, maps and mini-globes. The most famous dollhouse, Queen Mary’s dolls’ house, has electricity and running hot and cold water lines. In the garage near it there are several fully functional cars with petrol engines and it took four years to complete the construction and around 70 people were involved in it.
Up until World War I Germany was the leader in production of the most prized dollhouses and dollhouse miniatures and their dollhouses were regularly exported in Britain and the United States.
Germany’s implication in the war, impeded both production and export and manufacturers from other countries emerged. After World War II, dollhouses were mass-produced in factories on a larger scale but with less details than before and as such, became more affordable.
Over the last few years, the dollhouse hobby has flourished and there are thousands of collectors world wide. Hobbyists around the globe are able to buy or build their dollhouse and furnish it with bought or home made items – not only they can chose from a variety of styles, they can also build shops, gardens, pubs, hotels or anything they choose.