A LOVE AFFAIR WITH DOLLHOUSES

(Originally titled “Something about Doll Houses 2006” and featured in the Inky Trail News Newsletter)

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.

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4 responses to “A LOVE AFFAIR WITH DOLLHOUSES

  1. That’s a beautiful post and a nice memory of your husband.
    Lillian of lillianscupboard.wordpress.com

  2. Thanks, Lillian – I am absolutely OVER THE ROOFTOP with excitement as this is the first time I have actually added a photograph–I wanted so much to include one of the pictures (or more of them) of the Christmas dollhouse and I have had the directions in front of me since 2010 (I am a slow learner, obviously) -But some how the darn instructions WORKED. (or maybe its because I have a new printer) – at any rate, I went back to another old post and added a photograph to that one too. I have loads of photographs that I have taken for the past 3 years, many to go with articles but without knowing how to do it. :)

  3. Well Sandy, it’s most interesting so read your Dollhouse article, since I received my first dollhouse furniture when I was 8 yrs old. My aunt figured my cousin Shirley was too old for it so she gave it to me for Xmas that year.

    For many years, I belonged to 2 Miniatures Clubs. One disbanded after 29 years and we had a Reunion 2 years ago now.

    I have 1 furnished dollhouse, and 2 incomplete ones. I worked on 1 on my livingroom carpet every day for 6 months, until my husband suggested it be moved, so I hauled it all downstairs and never worked on it again!

    One year our club decided to put an exhibit of a ‘Heritage Village’ in a Miniatures Show & I offered to build a replica of the Grain Elevator that resides in Heritage Park in Calgary, AB. I went there, took a movie and some still pics of it, then came home and spent the next year building it from my movie and pics. It’s about 5’ tall, has a drive thru for the grain trucks w/ large sliding doors on both ends, a scale, & an office ++. It resides in my basement w/ all my other miniatures. There’s also alot of ‘box rooms’ that I built as projects w/ the clubs to enter into other Miniatures Shows. I enjoyed making petit point miniature carpets (for every room in my completed dollhouse). Each Xmas our club members exchanged miniature gifts they had made themselves, & I made one of my miniature carpets. Well all the other club members insisted they get one too, so over the next 10 – 11 years I finally made a carpet for every gal in our club as her Xmas gift.

    I’d so hoped to attend the Phoenix Miniatures Show this year, but it’s in March and I’ll have returned home by then. On our 25th wedding anniversary we took a trip especially to incorporate a Miniatures Show in San Francisco & a China Painting Show in Oakland which was absolutely terrific.

    All my miniatures and china paintings are just more of the things that’ll get ‘tossed’ when I’m gone. Also, whatever will 3 sons do w/ over 50 Royal Doulton figurines when I’m gone?? If I had my life to live over I wudn’t ‘collect’ anything next time!!!

  4. ISNT IT amazing to send emails back and forth between penpals and not really “know” them until something strikes a chord – as my article about our Christmas dollouse obviously struck a chord with you, Gerri. My sister Becky had a partial solution–she began giving away things once she was diafnosed with cancer–she gave away loads of things. I dont know what will become of many of my collections & things either. I would sure love to see your collections of room boxes and doll houses. Can you senf photos?

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