Changing scale is one of the fundamental physical dramas of childhood, an experience of constantly being uncontrollably altered, whose translation into imagination—and knowledge—naturally preoccupies many classics of children’s literature. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice is both miniaturized and magnified. Her abrupt and helpless metamorphoses in both directions are comic, ridiculous, and terrifying, while in Gulliver’s Travels, alterations of scale are part of what we experience as travelers in relation to foreign cultures and are sometimes no less than a matter of life and death. How things “turn out” in a story is often resolved through some variation on changing stature. Words themselves are miniatures, small as Proust’s madeleines in proportion to the worlds they describe.
Alterations of size can be expressed through environment, as in Robinson Crusoe or The Swiss Family Robinson, where the characters’ struggles to house, feed, and clothe themselves on deserted islands reduce them in scale in relation to the surrounding enormity of danger and solitude, while their eventual mastery of the natural world restores them to maturity. And elasticity of scale can be represented socially, as in tales like Perrault’s Donkeyskin, in which the peasant is revealed to be a princess, or in the Arabian Nights tale in which a djinn is subdued by the wit of a fisherman, and obliged to grant his wishes—the most powerful of all changes of scale, when an invisible wish is translated from imagination into reality.
Sarah Wood and Alice Sage, the curators of the “Small Stories” exhibition of dollhouses, have found ingenious ways to play with scale and changing dimensions in order to bring the installation’s twelve featured structures, all but two English, ranging in date from 1673 to the 1990s, to dynamic life. The show, which originated at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London and opened in May at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., offers a rich experience to both children and adult audiences simultaneously, no small feat, while the catalog vividly presents the range of houses included. Rooms reproduced from two different miniature houses have been expanded to life-size dimensions as part of the exhibition. Visitors can actually walk through or sit in a version of the kitchen and handle full-scale versions of the utensils from the elegant 1830s–1840s house hidden in a lacquer Chinese-style cabinet, a present from the surgeon John Egerton Killer to his wife and daughters, or they can crash a dance party in a 1960s tower block apartment, where snippets of period television play on a boxy set that is now the technological equivalent of a log cabin.
Wood and Sage find other ways to magnify the houses, not only in space, but also in time; when one presses a button outside each house, the domestic lives of characters inside the houses are narrated by period inhabitants, like a young girl on the eve of evacuation from her London house during World War II, or the Georgian women of the 1760 Tate Baby House, in their anxious quests—as custodians of their tiny silver candelabra, minuscule family portraits, and Adam-style paneling—to marry adequately funded husbands, or the variety of boarders, including a suffragette, in an 1890s London terrace house.
Social, legal, and technological displays and information, along with personal biography, seen through commentary and film projections, illustrate how the forms and contents of these miniature houses incarnate the historical moments in which they were made, the changing ways of living in houses, and the ability of dollhouses to mock the whole business of property and possessions.
The exhibition keeps the spectator moving through and around each house, avoiding both the cloying chocolate-box effects miniatures can induce in adults and the disorienting, irresolvable ambiguity of our point of view, unable to be fully inside or outside the small buildings we are examining. In addition, the houses included are drawn sensitively from a wide range of social backgrounds; in addition to aristocratic and substantial middle-class houses, there is a house from the St. Helier Estate, a 1930s London County Council garden suburb designed to rehouse tenants from decaying inner city neighborhoods; a 1960s block of high-rise flats, among whose inhabitants is a Jamaican, in recognition of the period’s wave of Caribbean emigration; and a superb Modernist country villa, with a swimming pool, cocktail bar, and murals by the Futurist painter Claude Flight, an example of the 1930s Hampstead houses often designed by avant-garde Jewish architects driven out of Nazi Germany (see illustration on this page).
The architecture and decor in miniature seem to embody with an almost magical intensity the sense of each house’s period; they seem animated in the way stage sets are, charged with the presence of invisible actors. The Hampstead villa evokes Noël Coward’s songs in praise of madcap pranks and improvised marvelous parties, and Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things, while the atomized 1960s flats evoke J.G. Ballard’s chilling novel High-Rise.
The curators’ willingness to explore more complex and sometimes darker elements of each house’s era effectively counteracts any excesses of charm. The Henriques House, an elegant town house in the style of Belgravia or Eaton Square, provides an opportunity to explore the mistrustful relations between nineteenth-century masters and servants, often suspected of theft or collaboration with professional thieves. In 1823 an offense of “stealing from master” was made punishable by death, while the narrative accompanying the house reveals how a spiteful master could ruin a servant’s future simply by refusing references.
Both the splendid 1760 Tate Baby House, with its balustraded double staircase, and the 1830–1840 Killer Cabinet House are equipped with lying-in rooms, specially furnished for childbirth, with a cradle, an impressive arrangement of silver to impress congratulatory visitors, and curtains to draw around the beds while nursing, a reminder that the earlier houses sheltered those in physical extremis; the newly born, the ill, and the dying once crossed paths in houses. The Tate House reminds us that the survival of a house could offer a longevity not guaranteed to the fragile individual members of a family, in eras when many children would not survive to adulthood and all pregnancies were mortal risks. The Tate House itself remained in the same family for an impressive 170 years.
Once we reach the twentieth century, even this stability no longer seems possible. In the final house in the show, the Kaleidoscope House by the American artist Laurie Simmons and the architect Peter Wheelwright, the translucent walls in crayon colors remove any illusion of privacy, while the similarly whimsical furnishings of both parents’ and children’s bedrooms make the generations seem nomadic and interchangeable, a house to be dismantled, one where adults and children might play at being one another. It is a house in which no one is likely to be born, or to die—at least, a natural death.
The oldest house in the Museum of Childhood’s collection is the 1673 Nuremberg House, minutely and elaborately equipped with both a best kitchen displaying pewter tankards and serving pieces, and a working kitchen designed as much for food preservation and provisioning as cooking, with its barrels, casks, and indoor chicken coop to keep the household in eggs through the long winter. This house evokes the original purpose of the Dutch and German dollhouses. Although the earliest miniature house on record was a 1557 cabinet of treasures belonging to the Duke of Bavaria, many seventeenth-century dollhouses served the practical purpose of training a household’s children and its illiterate servants in the arrangement and care of household furnishings, in a period when linens and kitchen utensils were an inventory of expensive treasures. These houses were as maps are to landscapes, the cartography of interior domestic life.
Two other celebrated early miniature houses served purely commemorative rather than practical purposes. La Chambre du Sublime, now lost, a gift to the Duc de Maine in 1675, displayed prominent writers of seventeenth-century Paris such as the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, Madame de La Fayette, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Nicolas Boileau-Desprêaux, and Jean de La Fontaine reading poems and conversing. The Princess of Schwarzburg-Arnstadt set out to crystallize the daily life of her eighteenth-century town and court in a series of eighty-two rooms, of which Sacheverell Sitwell wrote in 1953:
There is no other such detailed document of one of the Courts of Northern Germany, just as they must have seemed in the eyes of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was Kapellmeister and organist at Arnstadt [where the collection is now housed] from 1703 to 1706.
It can still be seen in Arnstadt, where it is on permanent display at the Palace Museum.
“Small Stories,” though, is more concerned with a particularly English conception of childhood and play that emerges with the eighteenth-century houses, and is remarkably sustained through the succeeding eras—the dollhouse as a Lockean toy par excellence, a philosophical plaything, designed to develop skills not only in household management, but in ways of thinking. “In Particulars, our Knowledge begins,” Locke wrote in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; he compared the child’s mind to an empty cabinet waiting to be filled with knowledge derived from the tangible features of the external world.
The child’s mind might, in a sense, be considered a kind of doll’s house to be carefully furnished. Locke suggested that within the rooms of the family house itself were countless objects that could be occasions for learning; his ideas inspired toys that taught skills of intellectual, moral, and social life, through the experience of the concrete, of what could be found and observed and touched in the world. The enormous influence of his insights is still evident in the genre of popular picture books and museum exhibitions teaching history through artifacts, pioneered by Neil MacGregor with his A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010)—and demonstrated by the “Small Stories” exhibition itself.
“Small Stories” also explores, though not quite as fully as I would have liked, another dimension in which miniature houses gain a full-sized stature—through the biographies of their makers, and their motivations in building, furnishing, or collecting these elaborately detailed structures. While some of the houses were made to delight and teach children, others are personal autobiographies, like the wallpaper designer and artist Betty Pinney’s recreation of her Edwardian childhood in a mansion with a roof garden, elevator, and chapel.
Others, like Roma Hopkinson’s poignant and deceptively cozy London house, furnished in the style of 1942, are designed to create an accurate record of domestic life during World War II. It would have been of great value to have a descriptive inventory of the contents of this particular house, with its supplies of gas masks, tin helmets, ration books, and other unfamiliar necessities of wartime domestic life. Even without a full archive of these details, the house is a vivid symbol of the matter-of-fact tension and quotidian sense of danger faced in a household mobilized for war, with artifacts of self-defense, self-discipline, and combat woven into its decor. Despite the bookcases, gramophone, breadbox, bust of Churchill, and orderly bedrooms, the house is a locus of extremity of risk, met by the gallantry of domestic comfort; it conveys a pervasive calm certainty in the face of the toylike fragility of human life.
These microscopically furnished houses can have a mysterious power to evoke the lost, the absent, the unattainable. The desperately stylish Whiteladies House of 1935, with its hedonistic and elegiac atmosphere of cocktails, fast cars, and pool parties, was described by its designer, Moray Thomas, as a deliberate portrait of a generation:
The young people who are unhampered by choice possessions of old furniture or by old conventions of drawing rooms, calling hours, formal manners or privacy…a generation bred in one war and living its little time of sunshine to the full before the next one.
A house like the great Stettheimer Dollhouse in the Museum of the City of New York, created by Carrie Stettheimer over the years 1916–1935, is both a record and a metaphor for an elegant way of life and cosmopolitan circle of relationships in the New York City of the 1920s and 1930s. Carrie and her sisters Ettie, a novelist, and Florine, a painter and set designer who created the sets for Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, were art collectors and famous hostesses whose circle included Gertrude Stein, Carl Van Vechten, Gaston LaChaise, and Marcel Duchamp, among many others.
The Stettheimer Dollhouse features an art gallery with miniature works contrbuted by their artist friends. The Stettheimers, with their fanciful clothes, theatrical parties and decor, transformed quotidian life into art; Carrie’s dollhouse is a fantasia reflecting their actual life, a bit like one of her sister Florine’s paintings in three dimensions.
Florine painted Carrie with the dollhouse in 1923, with family and friends sitting at table in the picture’s background, like dolls that have just been taken out to play with. Carrie’s dollhouse captured the element of fantasy inseparable from all domestic life and decor, and the truth that families and relationships are both real and imaginary, while Florine’s painting presented the dollhouse as a domain of intricate living relationships.
This least nostalgic of dollhouses, donated to the Museum of the City of New York in 1945, even has links to the future New York Review of Books. A Stettheimer great-granddaughter would become a member of its editorial staff, while a doll avatar of the composer Virgil Thomson, a frequent contributor, played the piano in the dollhouse salon when John Noble was the museum’s curator of toys.
A missing element among the biographies of the makers of this collection, who are largely women, is an acknowledgment of the parts diminutive objects have played in the lives of men and boys. They are full participants, for example, in the ancient (thought to be pre-Incan) Bolivian yearly Alasitas festival in which miniatures, representing one’s hopes for the year, are purchased from vendors selling everything from tiny marriage certificates and divorce decrees, to passports and suitcases full of various currencies, to cars, computers, and houses. These are then blessed both by Roman Catholic priests in church and Andean priests outside, to fertilize the tiny images of the dreams to grow into reality. The Alasitas miniatures evoke the miniatures sometimes found in ancient Egyptian tombs, the furnishings of the life to come in Paradise.
While modern miniature houses are usually sold as toys for girls, their history reveals them, beyond the ways marketing has taught us to perceive them, as fascinating objects for both genders. Alexandre Benois, the great Russian ballet set and costume designer, painter, curator, and toy collector, devoted a section of his autobiography to his favorite toy, a doll’s house made for him by his architect father in 1875, to “replace the rather clumsy…carpenter-made wooden doll’s-house which I had inherited from my brothers.” The house contained a ballroom, bedroom, and kitchen, with more advanced plumbing than in most St. Petersburg houses of the period, and was inhabited by, as Benois writes, a gentleman and lady doll, and himself.
The novelist H.G. Wells wrote of playing with the seventeenth-century doll’s house at Uppark, an important Sussex house (where his mother was housekeeper). The playful neoclassicism of the exquisitely witty miniature stately home is superior in elegance to the ponderous life-sized versions, freed from mortal burdens, pretensions, and social conventions, like Puck or Ariel.
Perhaps the greatest of modern miniature houses, Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, was designed and built by the architect Edward Lutyens between 1921 and 1924, during the same period he was building the new capital of India, New Delhi. This house, which was selected by the historian Anthony Gottlieb in 2014 on the aesthetics website Gilded Birds as an object of exemplary beauty, and which is exhibited at Windsor Castle, was an extraordinary national collaboration among great British craftsmen, artists, writers, and composers. Its retractable garden was designed by Gertrude Jekyll, its piano by the Broadwood firm, its shotguns by Purdey, its wine cellar filled by Berry Brothers and Rudd, its library stocked with books, many written specifically for the dollhouse library, by Robert Graves, Yeats, and Thomas Hardy among others, as well as supplied with music and art by contemporary composers and painters. The house was a kind of collective national talisman, a charm to restore an English way of life destroyed by World War I, an intact fragment of a shrinking empire. It would be hard to find another example of a work by so many disparate hands that treats reality itself so conclusively as a matter of trompe l’oeil.
It is often said that doll’s houses offer a sense of godlike mastery of the world to the children who play with them and the adults who create them. But toys provide simultaneous experiences of mastery and of failure. No matter how many marvelous and ingenious objects there are to be manipulated, no one can realize the ultimate fantasy a dollhouse awakens: “What happens if you turn away?/Every god has asked the same…,” writes Jacob Polley in his poem “Doll’s House.” No one can people a doll’s house.
M.R. James, in “The Haunted Dolls’ House,” a ghost story written specifically for the library of Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, captures this other eerie aspect of the miniature; these are shelters of the unseen as much as the seen. It is tempting to believe—and quite possible—that this story of a dollhouse that becomes a revealing witness of murder inspired another great figure of the history of miniatures. Frances Glessner Lee was born in Chicago in 1878, the heiress to the International Harvester fortune. Though denied a college education by her parents, Lee went on to establish the first chair in forensic science at Harvard, and later her gift to Harvard of a library devoted to homicide investigation became the nation’s first forensic science library.
In the 1940s Lee created a series of eighteen miniature rooms based on actual crime scenes, designed to train police detectives in analyzing evidence. She called them the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” because homicide investigators are “convicting the guilty, clearing the innocent, and finding the truth in a nutshell.” The rooms—varying from motel bedrooms, cozy middle-class kitchens, sleazy bars, cabin hideaways, and a parsonage—are furnished in minute detail, down to the victims’ magazines, groceries, and bedside tables. Dolls are imagined not as potentially living beings, but as dead bodies, blood-spattered, or painted with subtle mottling or flushes that raise questions about the causes of death. Glessner Lee’s dioramas convey her sense that houses can be false shelters, places carefully furnished to conceal ongoing crimes, lies, suffering, and fury.
They are now the property of the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office, and are still used for training. It is not difficult to see how studying these minute rooms can instill a necessary microscopic sense of the smallest nuances of an environment, and a remarkable change of perspective as well, transforming a detective with unprecedented power over a victim’s belongings into someone who must regain a sense of vulnerability, on the same scale as the victim. These rooms evoke the incomparable silence of houses whose objects have suddenly and unexpectedly outlived the inhabitants who arranged them.
The silence of the houses in the delightful “Small Stories” exhibition is evocative, too. It is the silence of a rich, recurring confluence of lives and imaginations over centuries. These houses are like nautilus shells—silent until you are close enough to hear inside them the surge of the sea.