When I was a little girl, Santa brought me a dollhouse for Christmas one year. I think I was about five years old. It was one of those 40s tin-dollhouses, furnished with Bakelite furniture and a bendable family of four. I loved that dollhouse and spent many hours playing with it and rearranging the furniture. Then when I was about twelve, I came home from school one day to discover that my mother had given my dollhouse to an acquaintance for her daughter. I was horrified.
“You never played with it anymore!” my mother claimed. (It was the bane of my existence, as well as that of my siblings, that our mother would arbitrarily decide which of your possessions you could keep and which she would decide to give away. While she kept things like used envelopes (to make lists), all shapes and sizes of plastic containers, empty lipstick tubes and all string and rubber bands—she gave away my brothers’ baseball card collections and collections of comic books—or equally perversely, she would decide to burn those things. If something was in her basement or under her roof, it was hers to dispose of. That was my mother. One time my son Steve asked her if he could have a few of the comic books that were stored in the basement. She said no, and later got rid of all of them.)
She was mistaken about the dollhouse. I did play with it. I never tired of rearranging the furniture and moving the dolls around. I had a tiny little lamp that you could hold close to an actual light and then the tiny lamp glowed in the dark. (Needless to say, this dollhouse didn’t have real, working lights!)
I never quite got over my mother giving away that dollhouse.
Obviously, I was ripe for collecting dollhouses. I didn’t intend to collect dollhouses but I’ve heard that if you have more than three of something, it’s a collection.
I found the first dollhouse in a thrift store in Burbank. It was in five or six pieces and the price was ten dollars. A girlfriend helped me carry the pieces to my car. Bob put the frame back together and it sat on a coffee table in the living room for several years without any additional remodeling. We began collecting an assortment of tiny dolls and dollhouse furniture. My niece and nephews and grandchildren played with it whenever they visited.
But I wanted a Christmas Dollhouse. Bob began working on the dollhouse in his spare time. It became his hobby.
In 1997, we finally got the dollhouse up and decorated. It turned out too cute for words. We bought some strings of itty bitty lights and put up a Christmas tree in the living room of the doll house along with a Santa and his sleigh on the rooftop, taking off with his reindeer.
We spent two weeks adding fine touches; one night I was laying on the floor in front of the doll house, sticking furniture inside, and Bob was handing me pieces from a basket of “stuff” we had collected..when he suddenly says, “You know, we could be committed for this. Most people would say we’re crazy.” But we had such a good time with the dollhouse – not just the decorating and remodeling, but spending hours poring over miniature catalogs we received in the mail. It became our joint hobby.
Another time, he said to me, “You should take that bed out of the master bedroom” and I said “well, gee, then we wouldn’t have a BED in the master bedroom” and HE says “yeah, and then you wouldn’t have all those BABIES in the nursery.” (Our nursery had about 10 little babydolls in it. I think 3 are triplets. They started taking on a life of their own).
That house looked darling alongside the tree! The following year we began to finish off the 3rd floor, creating a teen-age girls room and a bathroom. One time I found miniature ball gowns at a shop in Disneyland—creations patterned after the various Disney princesses; I bought two of the dresses which I think were intended to be Christmas ornaments—and then decided that, since we had those dresses, the two teenage girls were going to a ball that night. Since the two teenage girls were getting ready to go to a dance, a girlfriend made petticoats for them to have on.
The Christmas doll house became an on-going project for many years. The dollhouse mother is in the kitchen putting finishing touches on a gingerbread house; the dollhouse father is about to eat a Dagwood sandwich and sits in the living room which has a Christmas tree and a lot of presents and toys – the babies are all snug in their beds while Santa Claus is taking off in his sleigh, on the rooftop.
Every so often I’d find something perfect for the dollhouse–one year a Hallmark ornament that is a refrigerator, just the right size for the dollhouse—another year a Hallmark stove.
The rooms light up and we calculate that some of the lamps, and the chandelier, cost more than some of our real household lamps. That Christmas dollhouse became our pride and joy.
But, I still longed for that 50s tin-dollhouse. Some years ago while on vacation and visiting relatives, we found one in an antique store in northern Ohio. Those tin dollhouses had tabs and could be taken apart and laid flat, so, we took it apart and laid it inside one of our suitcases to bring home. Meanwhile, a girlfriend found another tin dollhouse for us, complete with furniture, at a shop near her home and bought it for me. Ok, I now had three dollhouses. A collection.
Then another friend found “Grandma’s cottage”, a little dollhouse constructed from one of those kits. It was perfect for a grandmother’s house. Grandma is sitting in her rocking chair while two grandchildren play at her feet.
The piece de resistance is a huge, heavy dollhouse that we learned about from a doctor friend. It once belonged to the daughter of an artist who lived in the nearby Hollywood Hills. The artist had built it for his daughter. He had passed away; the daughter had outgrown the dollhouse, and her mother was moving to Santa Barbara. Did we want to buy the dollhouse? Of course we did! We lugged it home in the trunk of my car, tied down with rope.
This dollhouse shows obvious wear from being played with for so many years and requires paint, wallpaper, wiring—the works. The neat thing about this hobby is that it was a joint venture; Bob did all the actual work while I’d stand back and make suggestions. We’d both study hobby catalogs choosing wallpaper and bathroom tile flooring.
We acquired a respectable collection of books about dollhouses, including some that are hundreds of years old—fascinating! There are actually tours you can take to visit those dollhouses throughout Europe.
I searched constantly for just the right dollhouse furniture. Another neat thing is that now my best friend has gotten into dollhouses too—she’s refurbished and furnished one and is working on her second. When we are together, we can always go antiquing and search for anything suitable for our dollhouses. Another friend found some 1930s oak bedroom dollhouse furniture and gave it to me one year for my birthday. Another time a niece sent me a boxful of ornate dollhouse furniture that I have since seen featured in a Hobby magazine. Who knew?
And since the Christmas dollhouse was now furnished (expensively, I might add) it was no longer suitable for the grandchildren to play with. We solved this by first buying a Fisher Price Loving Family dollhouse for the kids to play with when they were here visiting. And, the tin dollhouses are furnished and children are allowed to play with them. The original children to play with our dollhouses were my sister’s children – now grown. Then along came my grandchildren, all of whom – including the boys – would make a beeline for the dollhouses when they visited. Now those children are “too old” for dollhouses … and we have two more little girls ready to play with these houses when they visit Grammy.
*This post was originally written some years ago, for Inky Trail News, a newsletter for women and seniors. Since writing the original version, Bob passed away, on September 22, 2011. That last dollhouse we purchased from the woman who was moving to Santa Barbara? It’s in Bob’s workshop, incomplete. He was shingling the roof when he became too sick to work on it anymore. Our oldest granddaughter says she is going to finish it but that may take a long time, considering how busy she is with school and other interests.
–Sandra Lee Smith
January, 2012, in memory of Robert Fend, who loved the dollhouses as much as I did.