Friday, 18 November 2011


Of late the VV has been thinking about the history of dolls houses – partly because there is the brief mention of one in the novel she is currently writing, and partly because of a children’s book she has recently read.

In The Devil Walks by the much acclaimed author Anne Fine, the gothic Victorian plot centres around a dolls house which is the exact copy of a family home, and the miniature people within that house soon prove to be more than inanimate toys – but hold the clues to a dark event that happened in the family’s past.

But where does the fashion for playing with and, more often, collecting exquisite miniature houses stem from? Well, it seems to have begun as far back as the mid sixteenth century when Albert V,  Duke of Bavaria, commissioned the crafting of a copy of his own home to be displayed as a show of his wealth and social standing.

In later centuries more and more scaled down copies of real homes were exhibited as display cases to be filled with objects of aspiration, with many of the finest examples costing as much to create as a modestly priced full-sized residence.

Only in the Victorian era were the little houses used as playthings – albeit limited to those children whose families were wealthy enough to afford to pay the craftsmen who possessed the necessary skills.

However, as the industrial revolution went on, the down-scaled parts could be produced in mass by machine, becoming much more affordable; soon a mainstay of any respectable nursery. Well-known German manufacturers – whose houses and furniture were the most prized – were Hacker, Moritz Gottschalk, Elastolin and Moritz Reichel.  In America there was the Bliss Manufacturing Company. In England there was Silber and Fleming, Evans and Cartwright and Lines Brothers – who later became known as Tri-ang.

Should you wish to view some fine historical examples today, the VV recommends a visit to the V&A’s Museum of Childhood in London’s Bethnal Green  where the following examples are on display -

The Tate House

The Tate House was created around 1760. Modelled on an eighteenth century Dorset house, it can be separated into different sections - originally so that the mistress of the house could more easily take the baby house with her on her travels. The furniture is not contemporary – thought to be have been updated in 1830. Even the windows have been ‘modernised’ to appear as Victorian sashes when before they would have had twelve panes.

The Killer Cabinet House

The Killer Cabinet House was commissioned by the Manchester doctor John Egerton Killer (the VV is trying not to smile at that unfortunate professional name) around 1835. The cabinet was made to indulge his wife and daughters in their hobby of making miniature domestic objects. It has four rooms – a drawing room, a morning room, a bedroom and a kitchen.

Amy Miles House

The Amy Miles House – circa 1890 – was especially made for the little girl of that name. It includes a billiard room and school room and, before it was damaged in the second world war, there had also been an artist’s studio situated above a bathroom. You can view videos of the second and third floors of the Amy Miles House here.

If you have any interest in antique toys and the history of 'childhood' more generally, the Bethnal Green Museum is well worth a visit.

Addendum: In kind response to this post I received a copy of Voices from the Doll's House by Adele Geras, a beautiful and poignant collection of poems from which I would like to add the following few lines - 

My baby lies in the nursery
next to the attic reserved for mad aunties.
She has a hollow head
but I say nothing.
Hollow isn’t empty
and at night the space behind her eyes
thickens with little fluttering fears
that beat like moths: grey wings
against her eyelids.

For a related post on dolls houses please see: A BOOK FOR THE CHILD IN US ALL 


  1. Timing is everything :) I hadn't thought about dolls houses for 50 years, until October of this year. Vivien Greene, wife of the novelist Graham Greene, became fascinated with restoring and furnishing her own children’s dolls house during the dark days of WW2. Eventually she took the time to find other antique dolls houses and furnishings, seriously researching their history and restoring the houses.

    How cool that Mrs Greene became a noted authority in the field of antique dolls' houses and their social history, lecturing and collecting in many other countries.

    What is most amazing from your examples is that with the very best dolls houses, families were prepared to pay as much to create a toy as a modestly priced real home.

  2. How fascinating Hels - I had no idea about Vivien Greene's interest in dolls houses.

  3. I adore Dolls' houses and find this fascinating and enchanting. Anne's book is marvellous I think and genuinely creepy! Lovely pictures too.

  4. Yes I agree, Adele - I read Anne's book in one sitting and enjoyed every creepy moment. And yes, I agree about the illustrations which really added to the Victorian atmosphere.

  5. Totally off topic, but just reading the Normblog profile where I see you have an interest in tales of water, sprites etc ...

    Can you identify this fairy-tale ?

    When my darling and I were reading a lot of fairy-tales at bedtime, we read one which we've not been able to find again since in the works of Andersen or the Brothers Grimm.

    A young man is out in a boat on the river, and overturns. Drowning in the weeds at the bottom of the river, he's saved by the river fairy/sprite, they fall in love and he can now live underwater.

    But he hankers after his old friends and acquaintances 'up above'. Oh, to see them again and to find out what's happening in the wide world!

    So she lets him go, as the Hebridean witch-queen Thorgunna released Lief Ericsson, on condition of his return.

    And like Lief, our young man forgets his betrothed and his promise - and eventually is due to marry someone else.

    Come the wedding day, and it's starting to rain. By the time bride, groom and guests are in the church, it's raining stair-rods (I paraphrase) and the river is rising fast. Before they get to 'I do', the river is sweeping all before it - church, bride, groom, guests and all. That's what comes of slighting the river-fairy.

    I told you my daughter liked the doomy, gloomy stuff.

    Anyone know what the story's called ?

  6. Hello Laban - hmm - I wonder if this is Undine...also called Ondine?

    You can read a digitalised version illustrated by Arthur Rackham:

    There was also a film made in 2009 with Colin Farrell that echoed the legend:

    Hope that helps.

  7. PS SO sorry that links don't work directly in 'comments' - but you can paste them into your browser.


  8. On Dolls' Houses
    I was privileged to see the doll's house at West Dean, Sussex. Its furnishings included a picture dated 1690, but I don't know whether that was the date of the doll's house.

    Charlotte Frost

  9. I've just found your blog through a google search on the sufragettes (currently studying the topic at a-level history)! I really do love history,yet have never followed blogs focused on it(I'm more of a "fashion blogger"as they say)-so was really pleased to find you.Will be following,and looking forward to many interesting reads.

  10. Hello Sofie - I'm so glad you found me. Thank you for saying hello... perhaps I should do more (Victorian) fashion posts!


  11. Wow, those Doll's Houses are amazing! I've always been fascinated by them.Great post.
    Pam x

  12. Grandmas and Grandads wanted for a model village project to leave to our grandchildren. Worcestershire area. if interested