A Two-Story Toy Story: The Lives of Dollhouses
You’re six years old and you have that one toy you love to play with. It might be a tractor, G.I. Joe, or a dollhouse. Toys not only provide entertainment they can also help teach children about domestic life and offer a glimpse into history. Here at the High Plains Museum we have a dollhouse that was made around 1919. This dollhouse may not look like the dollhouses one is familiar with but it served the same purpose and held a special place for the children who used it.
A dollhouse is a child’s small-scale toy house. Originally, however, dollhouses were collectable items that were to be looked at and not touched. It was a sign of one’s wealth and status to have a dollhouse. The first dollhouse was made for Duke Albert V of Bavaria in the 16th Century. He called the dollhouse his “baby house” because it was a replica of his own house. A German craftsman built the dollhouse for the Duke which began a trend among the aristocracy. Soon craftsman were being commissioned to build replicas of aristocratic houses all over Europe. The houses were placed on prominent display, showing off the craftsmanship of these status symbols.
During the 19th Century dollhouses underwent a change. Factories began to mass produce dollhouses which resulted in a drop in the price. This meant that the average family could now afford a dollhouse. Dollhouses were then placed in children’s rooms which is where children, especially girls, began to play with the dollhouse. Until World War I, Germany made the best dollhouses in the world. WWI however cut off supplies to Germany and it was during this time that American companies took the lead. Companies like The Bliss Manufacturing Company, Roger Williams Toys and the Wisconsin Toy Co. began mass making affordable dollhouses.
Dollhouses were fashioned to look like houses in the era they were created. 19th Century dollhouses look like large farm homes or Queen Anne style houses. 20th Century dollhouses looked like houses found in the American suburbs. It was not until after World War II when manufactures started to use factories that a variety of dollhouses could be found. This had to do with the variety of materials available to the manufacturer. Lithographed sheet metal, fiberboard and plastic became the materials used most often. Dollhouses then helped recreate a part of history and show children houses different styles of houses. Some dollhouses were made to resemble a certain house which could then be classified as folk art, like this house near Lincolnville Kansas.
Some dollhouses would have the front swing open to reveal the inside of the house while others had an open front. The dollhouse
we have in our collection was made around 1919 by Mrs. E. T. Glascock for her daughters. It is made of wood with an open front. The outside was painted green and inside contains two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and a bathroom. All of the rooms have furnishings and the dollhouse has two dolls. The dollhouse was donated to the museum by one of Mrs. Glascock’s daughters.
The dollhouses would include furnishings which were just as elaborate as the house. Everything from toy cook stoves, to tables to miniature flower vases were produced and used in the houses. Dollhouses also included balconies, bay windows and steps which all added to the grandeur of the house. These furnishings not only made the house look good it was also a way for girls to learn the basics of creating and managing a household. Girls could rearrange furniture and decorate as they wanted, which would help them later in life when they ran their own household. They also helped teach girls about domestic life. The dolls would take on the roles in the household which helped enforce the children playing with them what roles were appropriate for the genders.
Dollhouses did not use to be the toy we think of today. Instead dollhouses were a luxury for the rich. As more dollhouses were produced however the price came down and people not from the aristocracy could afford to buy them. Dollhouses not only became a play thing but a way to help little girls learn how to manage a household. The dollhouse we have in our collection does not reflect a miniature house but was instead made by a mother for her daughters. All of the rooms are furnished and is on display currently at the High Plains Museum.
Toys and playthings are part of our cultural heritage and teach us a variety of things from social rules to socializing. They help bring people together and can span generations. Toys like a dollhouse might be saved and passed down to future generations. Do you have a special toy that you have passed down or was passed down to you? Or can you think of toys that like a dollhouse help teach children about society? Please share your stories and thoughts in our comments section.
Look for more posts in this series about our wonderful collection of Sherman County history.