DOLLHOUSE HISTORY 101 | The First Dollhouses in Europe, Part 1

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The European Renaissance saw a renewed interest in art and culture, and it is here that the miniature historian will find the birth of what today we would consider a dollhouse. While the early Renaissance in Italy sadly seems bereft of miniatures, the latter Renaissance in the northern European countries would seem fertile ground for the rebirth of miniatures and the introduction of the dollhouse.

The 1500’s saw a renewed interest in the arts in Northern Europe, and it became popular amongst the important and affluent to amass a collection of art. While paintings and sculpture would be more common, all sorts of object d’art would find their way into these collections, including some of the first dollhouses. It is also at this time that the word “miniature” enters into the vocabulary to mean something small. At the time, miniature would have referred to the small portraits that were becoming popular as a means of sharing pictures of oneself with family and potential suitors. The word itself comes from Italian miniatura which referred to the tiny illustrations in manuscripts which in turn comes from the Latin minium, or the pigment red used to make such illustrations.

The first dollhouse recorded in European history appears in 1558 in Germany and is referred to as the Munich Baby House. It was commissioned by Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria for his daughter. However, the house was so impressive that at some point it made its way into the Duke’s private art collection. In fact, the word “house” seems a bit inaccurate, as it was more of a doll palace. It was four stories high and included two kitchens, a ballroom, several parlors, and even a bathing room. Its lower floors held larders full of miniature food. No expense was spared–the fabrics were rich silks, furniture was made from fine woods and ivory, and tiny accessories from silver. Sadly, the house was destroyed by a fire in 1647. The Duke had the house carefully inventoried, and those records remain and give us an insight into what the house was like.

Thanks to the Duke’s efforts, it would seem that the German “Puppenhaus” is firmly cemented as the first dollhouse. However, it is not until 1601 that we find another record of a miniature house. Another German duke, Duke Phillip II of Pomerania-Stettin would commission his own miniature house. The house was a replica of a meierhof–an estate belonging to an nobleman’s administrator. It featured not only the house, but the surrounding courtyard as well. While the Duke intended it as a gift, it has been lost to time. However, an illustration remains and another miniature farmyard created by the Duke in 1917 gives us some idea of what it would have been like. This second farmyard is full of many realistic animals, including poultry decorated with real feathers, being attended to by a variety of dolls.

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The Meierhof commissioned by Duke Philip II.

One of the oldest existing dollhouses, the Stromer House, is also German. Dating back to 1639, its original owner of the house is unknown. It was donated to the Germanisches National Museum in Nuremburg by Baron von Stromer. The house has 15 rooms with over 1000 objects depicting a well-to-do household of the time. The house is three stories high and designed to look somewhat like a real house with a roof and rather grand entrance to the courtyard. Two of the lower rooms have been divided up into four smaller rooms each and depict a larder, cowshed, beer cellar, dairy, storeroom, office, and servant bedroom. These rooms demonstrate that there was less concern with scale and more concern with depicting the household as a whole. The upper rooms are much grander with silk draped beds, paneled walls, and a well appointed kitchen.

The exact role these houses played is also somewhat debatable. While it is primarily believed that these houses were viewed as adult collectables, there is also some evidence that they may have been used in the instruction of young girls on running a household. After all, even the Duke Albrecht’s house was originally intended for his daughter, though it is unknown if she ever used it in such a manner. In 1631, an elderly woman named Anna Köferlein from Nuremberg assembled a dollhouse for public display and distributed pamphlets extolling the virtues of a dollhouse as a way to teach children household management. Though her house is lost, the pamphlet remains and depicts a very grand house with leaded pane windows and is said to have included both library and music room.

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Anna Köferlein’s dollhouse as depicted in her 1631 pamphlet

Also of interest is a house dating back to 1673 from Nuremburg. Currently part of the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in London, the house only has four rooms and is much simpler than its grander contemporaries. It is decorated as a tradesman house might have been during the time. The house contains a bedroom, kitchen, scullery, and bed-sitting room. Though small, the house is well appointed. The kitchen contains a variety of plates, pots, and tools of pewter and brass needed to cook a meal. The bed-sitting room has a simple porcelain stove to keep miniature “visitors” warm while being hosted in the room.

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The 1673 Nuremberg House was small for a house of the period, but well furnished. Photograph courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood, London.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mon Plaisir which was created by Princess Augusta Dorothea von Schwarzburg-Arnstadt over her lifetime between 1697 and 1751. Not content with a just a “baby house”, the princess set out to recreate the entire town of Arnstadt in miniature. While today experts are unsure of the exact layout of the town, it believed that it would have been much like that of the town in the Princess’s time. It consisted of 26 houses, 84 rooms, and 411 dolls. In addition to a recreation of her home complete with miniature dolls of herself and her husband, there was also a theater, soap refinery, convent, hunting scene, and several street scenes. After her death in 1751, the miniature town changed hands several time until it ended up at Schlossmuseum Arnstadt where it is currently on display.

While Germany may have been the starting pointing for the modern dollhouse, it would soon find an increased popularity with collectors in the Netherlands and England. In Part 2, we will look at examples from those countries and how they influence our modern conception of the dollhouse.

Click here to read Part 2.

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101S is a LEARN Section series of articles teaching you everything you need to know about a mini subject.

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