Seventeenth-century Dutch socialites Petronella de la Court and Petronella Oortman, the dauphin of France, Queen Victoria, and Queen Mary had them: dollhouses and miniature replicas of masterworks of furniture and decorative arts, through which they could recreate their larger-than-life existence. The popularity of these Lilliputian marvels extended well into the twentieth century, when doll-sized houses, shops, farms – and even Noah’s ark, filled the pages of toy catalogs. These were usually made of carved and painted wood, and decorated with brass, steel, porcelain, amongst other materials. Often exact replicas of their life-sized counterparts, they provide unique insight into the social and material culture of the period: what did a typical nursery contain? How did a family live and interact together in the home? More than mere toys, dollhouses were used to teach little girls about household management. This nineteenth-century miniature “Grocery Stores” (in the nineteenth century the word “stores” referred to goods that were stored) is made of painted and carved wood; the sides of the model rotate open to provide complete access to the interior, which tells us that the object was likely intended to be manipulated during play. Complete with sixteen functional drawers labelled for almonds, cacao, cinnamon, cloves, and other exotic spices and ingredients, this toy shop would likely have served as an introduction into the world of commerce for a young boy.
Catherine Powell is a graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Fellow in the Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.