miniature

Marvellous Miniatures

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.

1. Library in Queen Mary's Dolls' House

 The library with leather bound books in Queen Mary’s dolls’ house.  The Royal Collection Trust.

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.

3. Dolls and eggs

 Four half egg shells and two baby dolls. Ref: TH.3706

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.

2. Baby doll from an egg

 One of the baby dolls that nestles in a miniature egg. Ref: TH.3076a

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.

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Totarapuka dolls’ house

Collecting miniature objects, and dolls’ houses to put them in, has long been a favourite hobby of young and old alike. They have not, however, always been seen as just a humble toy.

Appearing in 17th century Europe, the earliest dolls’ houses were important showcases of wealth and status. Later, they were used to teach daughters how to run and manage a home and, of course, servants. Queen Mary’s dolls’ house at Windsor Castle is one of the most luxurious examples of a miniature home, featuring functional examples of everything a modern house of 1924 might have, including a tiny working gramophone and even a flushing lavatory!

Although dolls’ houses did eventually become toys, they remained expensive until the 20th century when mass-production allowed many families to buy one. Because their contents were so small and fragile, houses and furniture were easily broken by the children playing with them. This means that the old dolls’ houses that can still be found today are rarely in good condition.

Totarapuka dolls' house

Totarapuka dolls’ house. Ref: 1959.180.35

One of the Whanganui Regional Museum’s best loved objects – by staff and public alike – is the Totarapuka dolls’ house. A few scuffs and scrapes show that it was well used for many decades. It belonged to a prominent local family, the Duncans. Built for their children in the late 19th century, the dolls’ house was modelled on part of their 24 room homestead and given the same name, Totarapuka. Part of the real Totarapuka still stands today on Anzac Parade; a fire destroyed one wing in 1925. Before the dolls’ house entered the Museum collection in 1959, it had already been enjoyed by generations of Duncan children, including those of Isabel Duncan who married Mayor Charles MacKay.

Very large in size and inset with stained glass, it is a high quality hand-built toy. Breaking dolls’ house conventions, the house does not open at the back and the windows, which open on hinges, are deliberately large enough for human hands to go through. It has four rooms, two verandahs, and is wallpapered inside. At some point it was wired for electricity.

Totarapuka painting

The real Totarapuka homestead on Anzac Parade from the Whanganui River by artist “S R” in 1917. Ref: 2008.60.348

When the Museum reopens in Watt Street later in 2018 after many months of earthquake strengthening and building repairs and improvements, the dolls’ house will again be visible to the public. This time the interior will be more prominent, and we hope to see it decorated with household objects and furniture appropriate for a late nineteenth-century home. The Museum is searching for dolls’ house furniture to display in the Totarapuka dolls’ house as part of the exhibition because there is next to none in the collection that is congruent with the scale of the Totarapuka doll’s house, which has large high rooms.

 

Scott Flutey is a student of Museum and Heritage Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He is working as a summer intern at Whanganui Regional Museum.