Palladio Minimus: A Georgian dollhouse and the 18th century miniature world

This versatility perfectly mirrors the multiple uses a dollhouse could have as a child’s plaything and an adult’s cabinet of curiosities. As early as 1631 in Nuremberg a dollhouse was touted as having educational merit in teaching young ladies how to manage a household.24 In 1768 Dr. Hugh Smith (c. 1736–1789) wrote in his medical advice book, Letters to Married Women, “I have with inexpressible pleasure seen many young ladies, women grown, happily amusing themselves at their younger sister’s baby house.”25 The 1783 children’s reader Cobwebs to Catch Flies used dolls and a baby house to teach charity. On observing that one doll’s best coat is worn out, a visiting girl asks the house’s owner why her doll did not have a new one:
First Girl:I had a crown to buy her a piece of silk; as I went in the coach with my aunt to buy it, we met a poor child who had no clothes, but the worst rags which you can think.

Second Girl:And you gave it to her? My doll should wear her old gown for a long time, for the sake of such a use to put my crown to.

First Girl:I had more joy in that, than I could have had in my doll’s new gown. Dolls can not feel the want of clothes.26

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries children playing with a dollhouse did so under the watchful eye of a governess or parent. They were costly, fragile, and at times even dangerous, if the evidence of lit candles in the van Haeften house is any indication. The English author H. G. Wells (1866–1946), who spent time at Uppark, where his mother was a housekeeper, recollected in his semiautobiographical novel Tono-Bungay that the toys at Uppark “remain in my memory still as great splendid things, gigantic to all my previous experience of toys.” In particular, he wrote of going to “the great doll’s house on the nursery landing to play discreetly…under imperious direction with that toy of glory.”27

Much like full-scale houses, dollhouses were never really finished. And that was the fun for child and adult. There could always be a new piece of silver, a more fashionable piece of furniture, more avant-garde artwork, or a new dress for the dolls. As the educational reformers Maria (1767–1849) and Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744–1817) observed in 1798, “an unfurnished baby-house might be a good toy, as it would employ little carpenters and seamstresses to fit it up; but a completely furnished baby-house proves as tiresome to a child as a finished seat is to a young nobleman.”28

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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