A Dolls House - More Than Just
An Ideal Collectible
I was never a person interested in a dolls house
of any kind. Even action figures were off my radar screen as a
kid. The G.I. Joes I received for Christmas one year ended up
in the hands of my friends. I traded them for some Hot Wheels
cars and a Man From U.N.C.L.E. undercover camera pistol. That
Aqua Man swimming action toy I was given for some long forgotten
birthday ended up being traded for a Star Trek model (Darn
it Jim, Im a Star Trek Fan, not a Super Friends or Justice
League Member!). Dollhouses fell into the same category
Apart from the fact that I looked at a dolls house
as a girl toy, I had no sisters and, therefore, no access to such
things. To take it a step further, most of the friends I had who
were girls were really tomboys and would rather play baseball
and climb trees than play with dolls. A dolls house and me were
destined never to meet and it would have remained that way except
for a fascination I developed for miniatures. It all began with
a metallic western town and the death of a President.
I was in second grade attending school near where
we lived on Long Island when the news of the assassination of
President Kennedy came over the classroom loudspeaker.
My father arrived home very upset and gave me a
hug as he walked in the door. My mother followed a few seconds
later and handed me a cardboard box asking me to go play quietly
for a while. I headed to my room and proceeded to examine the
box. It had photos from Gunsmoke on it, so I assumed the toy was
something related to the popular TV Show. Seeing the box was too
deep for a board game, too wide to be a toy gun set and merely
said Old West in big letters on the cover, I couldnt
wait to see what was inside. But that meant cutting though the
standard thick tape that protected all toy boxes from being opened
in the store in those days. This was tape that I was certain had
been designed to securely seal the vaults and protect the nations
gold supply at Fort Knox.
After finally breaking through the box and Incredible
Hulk-proof tape, I gazed at a miniature, metallic Old Western
Town. It was already assembled for the most part and just required
some unpacking. As a parent, I can only wish that todays
toy manufacturers would learn from that example. Everything I
buy for my kids requires the removal of at least one hundred plastic
ties which are double knotted in both directions, 84 pages of
instructions in eighteen languages (including Sanskrit), a dozen
hours of assembly time, no tools (except the one I do not tend
to have on hand) and thirty batteries.
I instinctively started role-playing with the plastic
horses and figures included with the town. I imagined myself in
a saloon fight. With great strength and conviction, I threw the
card cheater out through a plate glass window and returned the
money to all his victims. Then I was a lone Marshall facing down
Desperados on the street while Chester came hobbling up behind
me yelling, Mr. Dillon, Mr Dillon! Hiding in a small
alleyway from the crooks trying to rob the town bank, I appeared
out of nowhere and single handedly took them down saving the widows
pension money and the mines payroll. Before I knew it, hours
had gone by and I had become a fan of miniatures.
As birthdays and Christmases came and went, the
Gunsmoke Old West Town was followed by an assortment of other
miniature towns associated with various TV Shows including Mayberry
from the Andy Griffith Show and Gothem City from Batman. One summer
my father encouraged me to build a miniature town for our model
railroad. I was thrilled! He purchased the supplies needed and
I spent many enjoyable days gluing together the small structures
and running the wires necessary for all the streetlamps and houses.
I enjoyed building the town as much as playing with the trains.
Around 1970 our family moved from Long Island, New
York to Saint Petersburg, Florida. My first exposure to a dolls
house came a year later at the age of thirteen because of a glass
of lemonade. I rode my bike for over five miles in the heat and
humidity of an early Florida winter to get to a model-railroading
museum. Once there, I was not amused to find that the place had
nothing to offer thirsty guests coming in from the hot Florida
sunshine but a decrepit drinking fountain with warm, bad tasting
water. I would have gladly paid for a soda if the owners of the
place had sense enough have a vending machine available. They
didnt. Another disappointment came when I discovered that
this once fabulous Shangri-La of model railroading had deteriorated
to a point that it was merely an embarrassing shadow of what their
colorful brochure promised. There were more lies told in that
brochure than in a lawyers office.
The model-railroading museum had moved most of its
contents from a large house to what looked like a big workshop
in the back yard. That was necessitated by a leaky roof and some
badly needed repairs to the house. The workshop had originally
housed just the model railroad setup of Lionel, HO and various
European brands of model trains. Combined, the tracks probably
covered an eight of a mile. It was impressive to look at, but
of the five track setups, only one was operational when I visited.
While the static displays of antique model trains
and a brief lecture on model railroading history had made my dreary
bike ride and the bad water drinking fountain almost worth the
trouble, I was very upset that most of the railroad setups werent
working. That had been what I had really come to see and experience.
A tired looking volunteer dressed in a train engineers outfit
that needed washing assured us that like the house, the model
train setups were being fixed. Admission had been reduced to fifty
cents during the planned construction. I hoped my half a buck
would help with their much-needed repairs and left in search of
a cold soda machine or any nearby convenience store I could find.
Sweaty, annoyed and wondering why I had bothered
to come all this way, I unlocked my bike from the model railroad
museum fence and started walking it out to the street. Passing
the house next store, I noticed an elderly woman serving a group
of people some very enticing ice-chilled Lemonade on the porch.
A sign in the front yard revealed that the large house was also
a museum. It was a re-creation of daily life in a country home
from the nineteenth century. A couple of role playing volunteers
who dressed in antique clothing and were old enough to be from
the 1800s offered escorted tours for those who wanted more than
just a walk thru.
For me, the cold lemonade and a chance to get in
out of the sun for a few minutes was the well worth the dollar
donation being requested for entry. I deployed the kickstand of
my bike, took a dollar out of my pocket and headed up to the porch.
I was greeted by a warm smile and offered a cold glass of lemonade
that tasted better than any beverage I have ever had before or
since. The elderly woman even let me in for fifty cents because
I was a student. Be smart and stay in school. There
was no charge for the public service announcement she offered
with the discount admission.
The nineteenth century country living tour began
in a huge back yard area which was a small working farm. They
used only nineteenth century tools to get the job done. Agricultural
Students from a local college donated their time to work the farm
and gain some real hands-on experience with crops and farm animals.
Only natural methods of pest and disease control were used. When
crops grown on the premises went on sale a couple of times a year
to help raise funds for the place, they sold out fast. People
had just started to really appreciate the benefits of eating foods
grown in a pesticide free environment during those days.
The next segment of the tour had us entering the
back door of the country home where we stepped into a seemingly
ancient kitchen. The only objects familiar to me were a few pots,
a sink and stove. I had no idea what most of the other kitchen
implements had been used for. Roberta took the time to explain
that to us. While listening to her, I noticed a few small chairs
and a table built for children near a large fireplace in a back
corner of the large kitchen. I learned that these types of country
kitchens often doubled as play areas and family rooms during chilly
times of the year. Behind the childrens table and far off
to the left of the now dormant fireplace stood a dolls house.
I had never seen anything like it.
Unlike the small, cheap plastic and metal dollhouses
often mass-produced and marketed in chain stores, this one looked
immense and was stunning in detail. Hand made sometime late in
the last century, a dolls house that had aged well and had been
donated by a collector who had once visited the museum and been
very impressed. It was obvious that the people who ran this place
appreciated the gift and took great care to preserve it.
Despite the roughness of some of some of the furniture
which had been hand craved and placed inside of a dolls house,
the detail of the miniature structure itself was amazing. I couldnt
get over it! It was as though someone had taken a real, full-sized
home and shrunk it. The dollhouse was also surprisingly interactive.
Roberta explained how various parts could easily be removed for
play, put back in place for storage or opened up to expose whole
sections of the structure despite its seemingly immense size.
As we moved on to a large front room, three more
dollhouses were on display. These were spectacular and faithful
recreations of large Victorian homes, but had been more recently
built in the farm workshop from plans available for sale in the
museum gift shop. Despite the quality of the workmanship, it was
easy to see the difference between the handcrafted structure in
the kitchen and the others built using power tools. Those differences
became more obvious to me on the many subsequent trips that I
made to the museum with my parents and by myself.
As a result of my experiences at that Museum, I
moved from being just entertained by the miniature toy towns I
played with in my youth to being thoroughly fascinated with miniatures
and wooden crafted items in general. Although I never became a
serious collector myself, I rarely missed an opportunity to view
small and often unique wooden miniature collections kept in tiny
museums throughout the USA and Canada. I visited many such places
while traveling as a Professional Speaker. Along the way, I have
learned a lot about these things and will share some of that with
Despite what the books say, no one really knows
when or where miniatures were first created for enjoyment. Many
ancient societies and civilizations were known to have had miniatures
of deities, people, animals and things made for ceremonial use.
The ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom buried miniatures of
animals, slaves, boats, furniture and most everything they had
used or come across in life with their dead. Oriental societies
made miniature temples and statues. African tribes crafted tiny
wooden huts, peopled them with stick figures in frightful looking
headdresses and placed the small structures on tall wooden polls.
The huts were supposed to scare off evil beings and the imagined
threat of people who were able to turn into animals and kill their
Some of the first evidence of miniatures created
for pure enjoyment appeared about four hundred years ago in Germany.
Tiny rooms of miniature furniture were symbols of wealth and status
because only the very wealthy could afford them. Kept in display
cabinets where the miniatures was exhibited and separated into
room settings, these cabinets soon became miniature homes called
baby houses and were owned and treasured by adults.
Not considered toys, the miniatures and cabinets were kept out
of the reach of children. These baby houses became
the first dollhouses known to history. Miniature people and animals
didnt appear in these collections until later.
By the early 1800s, the display cabinets and baby
houses had changed. They were now scale models of complete
homes, perfect in every detail with exteriors as finely crafted
as the interiors. These early dollhouses became as valuable as
the miniatures they displayed and were as expensive as the average
full size house of the day. They were hand-crafted heirlooms built
by gifted craftsman, lavishly adorned with the finest fabrics
and furnished with miniature copies of the best furniture and
china sets. Purchased by the royalty, aristocracy and wealthy
of Europe, they were presented to the teenage daughters of the
privileged classes. As the wealth of Europe grew, the ages of
presentation lowered until young children found themselves in
possession of these hand-made treasures.
Early American Settlers from Europe also fell in
love with the idea of a dolls house, but few could afford the
lavishly built German miniatures. As a result, a dolls house became
an ideal project for adults and the perfect gift for children
who lived in the pre-industrial farming communities of America.
While these miniatures may have seemed primitive when compared
with finely crafted European dollhouses, they had a certain flare
and portrayed a new country style which eventually became known
as the Americana or Yankee genre.
The Americana style of hand-made wooden dollhouses
became very important after the industrial revolution. As the
idea of mass production took the world by storm, metal dollhouses
and other miniatures were churned out by the thousands. Even wooden
miniature structures were quickly assembled through factory mechanization
and shoved on to store shelves at prices that almost everyone
could afford. All this was good news for children who wanted inexpensive
toys, but bad news for quality in the world of wooden miniatures.
Wood or Metal? Thats a question that Collectors
of both types of a dolls house, miniatures and toys will always
argue about. Some people love those mass produced metal monsters,
while others crave the simplicity and craftsmanship of the classic
wooden miniature or dollhouse. If its about being a collectible,
most metal miniature mass-produced houses made in America over
100 years ago are going for just $50-$150 today. Wooden dollhouses
in the Americana style and hand-crafted in the USA from the same
period can reach prices well into thousands of dollars, or even
tens of thousands of dollars if they include miniature wooden
furnishings from the same period. Handmade wooden dollhouses that
come with their original furniture can see prices that reach the
sky. Thats because there are so few available. Older, handcrafted
European wooden miniature houses can reach hundreds of thousands
of dollars (or much more) if you can find them. Even a good mass
produced wooden dollhouse made in America today will cost $350-$600.
If you want something that the kids can play with
and possibly keep as an heirloom, stay in the mass-produced range
of $350-$600. If you want an investment that can be handled by
responsible teens and adults, were talking Americana style
wooden handcrafted dollhouses. Whether they are Country, Urban
or Suburban in design, Americana style wooden handcrafted dollhouses
will always be excellent long-term investments. Thats because
fine quality models with handcrafted furniture can still be had
for a reasonable $2000-$5000. Considering the hours that go into
their creation and possible future value, these are a bargain.
Why? Because there are less available every year.
In a society filled with people who want fast food,
fast tans and fast crafts, hand-made wooden dollhouses are an
endangered species. Handcrafted, wooden dollhouses made in the
USA in the Americana or Yankee style are destined to be in very
short supply as their makers pass on without a suitable number
of replacements to meet the markets demand. Im sure
they are out there, but I do not personally know anyone under
the age of fifty-five who is handcrafting unique, Americana style
dollhouses here in America.
Beware of bargains. There are lots of people out
there who have a knack for woodworking. They have access to home
or commercial wood shops and can afford the few dollars it costs
for a dolls house kit at the local quick crafts store. These are
not individually designed, handcrafted a dolls house. They are
wooden quickies that are often poorly glued and thrown
together. Most will look good for a while, but are not made of
quality materials. They will not last and can actually be worth
far less than the average mass produced woodie after a couple
of years. In terms of being collectable, they are not and many
fall into the monetary value category of store bought wooden birdhouses.
How can you tell the difference? The truth is on the outside and
A quick trip to the Ebay Website will reveal a number
of finished wooden dollhouse kits being sold as originals
or collectables. These look identical because they
are identical. They come from plans; patterns and kits mass-produced
and sold in quickie craft stores. If you see more than one of
the same designs being sold by difference sellers, watch out!
They are probably kits or based on commercially available patterns.
Many are off scale. Although there are differences between European
and American Dollhouse scales, most of the cheap woodies
and knockoff dollhouses made from patterns and kits tend to be
slightly smaller than the real thing. Some research into the complicated
matter of a dolls house scale can pay off for those wanting to
purchase the real deal.
Taking a very close look at the interior of a dolls
house will often reveal its true value. The devil is in the details.
Over-painting, under decoration, little attention to detail, sloppy
window placement, poor workmanship and careless gluing are always
signs that youre buying an overpriced wooden quickie
that will not last or gain in value. It will not only lighten
your wallet, but more importantly, buying that kind of junk will
not help support the few real hand-crafters left out there or
encourage new talent to join their ranks.
Handcrafted wooden Americana dollhouses are more
than just collectible objects; they are individual works of art
that embody the soul of a nation. While they tell the story of
a simpler time, a dolls house also reveals the desire all Americans
have to standout from the rest of the world. Were a nation
that has created unique and lasting forms of art, music and culture.
Americana-style, handcrafted wooden dollhouses can also be added
to that impressive list.
This article was submitted by Bill Knell of www.billknell.com
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