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.
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.
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.