History of the Doll’s House

dolls house
© F H Powell 2009

The first Doll’s Houses seen in Europe were from the early 16th century. These were owned by wealthy families who had miniatures of their own homes made as a representation of their home rather than as a play thing or hobby. Albert the Wise (1447-1508), Duke of Bavaria, commissioned a miniature replica of his own home as a demonstration of his renown. These 16th century Doll’s Houses were however cabinet displays rather than ‘houses’ as such.

Of the early Doll’s Houses, the houses of Sara Rothé (1699-1751) still survive today. They were based on her town house in Amsterdam and her summer house in Haarlem. Being an accomplished embroiderer allowed Sara to create cloth furnishings for her houses. She put her houses on public display and continued to improve and expanded them eventually buying 3 further houses.

By the Victorian Era, Doll’s Houses were becoming universally popular, being found in the nursery, as a plaything rather than as a craft based hobby. These houses were not commercially produced and relied on local craftsmen, making them outside the reach of most families. But as the century wore on the industrial revolution brought mass production to toys and houses. There were a number of German manufacturers whose houses were deemed superior. In Britain, by the end of the 19th century, mass production was supplying the demand for toys and houses too with American manufacturer The Bliss Manufacturing Company supplying the North American market.

Possibly the most lavish house of the early 20th century was the one commissioned for Queen Mary as a gift, who was an avid collector. Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the 1:12th scale house, which was completed in 1924 and exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition. Many trades supplied finely crafted miniatures including Royal Doulton china and Cartier clocks. This house can be said to be the beginning of the Doll’s House as a collectors hobby. Around 24 million people attended the British Empire Exhibition some of which went away with their imaginations fired and an interest in creating their own modest house. During the 20th century the hobby continued to grow and common scales were accepted with children’s playhouses in 1:18th scale and occasionally 1:16th scale. The commonly accepted scale for adult collectors is 1:12th scale, but with 1:24th scale emerging in America in the 1950’s. In more modern times Dolls Houses are becoming ever smaller with 1:48th scale becoming increasingly popular and even going down to 1:144th scale.

As with many hobbies the miniature collectors hobby goes in cycles. As new generations discover the joy in making miniatures, so the cycle repeats and should an A list celebrity declare an interest, the momentum increases. We may not be here in 100 years time, but lets hope that generation continues to enjoy the rewarding hobby of miniatures.