In the Victorian period an obsession with all things miniature became a form of entertainment. Men would generally collect natural history items such as fossils and taxidermied or preserved specimens, and display them in a cabinet of curiosities. Women’s tastes seemed to be domestic, or at least that’s what was available to them. Dolls’ houses were crafted and there was no shortage of furniture, books and dolls to fill them. Craftsmen would often produce miniature versions of their own products to demonstrate their skills; these were exquisitely made and very costly.
The ultimate example of domestic miniature collecting is Queen Mary’s dolls’ house at Winsor Castle. Built in 1924, it was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, the most eminent English architect of the time, who commissioned renowned artists and craftsmen to contribute examples of their works. Electric lifts, lights, running water and a flushable toilet, complete with miniature toilet paper, are included. The wine cellar contains tiny glass bottles filled with wines and spirits. The library is filled with leather-bound miniature books by 170 famous authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A A Milne, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling. The walls are adorned throughout with paintings by notable artists.
Dolls’ houses became all the rage with the rich, and there was an immense demand for furniture and dolls with which to fill them. After World War II, doll’s houses and their contents started being massed produced, and consequently, much more affordable for more people.
There is an assortment of miniature objects in the collection of the Whanganui Regional Museum. We can find miniature teapots, pots and pans, furniture, miniature sewing machines and even a miniature suit of armour.
Amongst the tiniest is a pair of Lilliputian wooden dolls, each nesting inside a tiny wooden egg. One is painted green and the other yellow, both with the inscription, “the smallest doll in the world’’, barely discernible on the outside in gold. They were produced in Germany and Austria for the British market in the early 1900s and were often given to children as an Easter gift. They were known as “penny dolls’’, as this is what they were reportedly sold for in Britain at the time.
The eggs are 3.2 centimetres high. The dolls are just 1.3 centimetres tall and have moveable, jointed arms and legs. They are joined to the body by small wooden pegs which are locked together, so that if one arm or leg is moved, the other does likewise. Both are painted with rather stern looks on their faces.
Because of their fragility and the fact that they were cheap, once broken they were often discarded, so we are fortunate to have an intact pair in the collection.
It seems the appetite for miniatures never disappears. A quick look on the Internet reveals a renewed interest in miniature dolls. Dolls, with names such as Lalaloopsy, Cupcake and Polly Pockets, are very popular and come with small houses and accessories. Even boys are accommodated with Lego and transformers. Will these be filling the shelves of museums a hundred years from now?
Kathy Greensides is the Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.