Controlling a small world: dolls’ houses and gender roles

I had the great pleasure of attending and talking at a symposium on dolls’ houses recently; a fascinating event organised around Liza Antrim’s dolls’ house collection part of which was on display at No. One Royal Crescent, Bath (check out the exhibition’s Pinterest board). The miniaturization of the domestic in the form of the dolls’ house has fascinated people of different ages and genders for centuries. For adults, dolls’ houses are collectibles, whether the magnificent baby houses of the seventeenth century, commissioned to display wealth and taste, or lovingly-fashioned creations of hobbyists today. For children, typically girls, dolls’ houses are intended to teach through play; in the past tools for learning gender and class identity and roles, housekeeping, fashion, decoration and taste.

Illustrations of nurseries in nineteenth-century children’s books frequently included a dolls’ house. By this time, as Nancy Wei-Ning Chen’s research demonstrates, the presence of a dolls’ house in the home symbolised that a family was wealthy and privileged and able to educate girls in the rules of housekeeping, and engage with fashions and trends.

But when one begins to explore the meaning of dolls’ house, it emerges that there is more to these small worlds than such descriptions of their role in display or didacticism suggest. They are, as Chen argues ‘also a means and space to express imagination, creativity, and agency’. In fact, dolls’ houses act as emotional objects, contributing to the way people construct personal and family histories and form familial links across generations.

My view is informed by my research into the emotional and material culture elements of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century family life and gender. Also, I’m using around 200 tweets generated in response to my request on Twitter for people to tell me their feelings about their dolls’ houses (see the Storify of these tweets here, and many thanks to all those who contributed). The volume and sentiment of replies powerfully demonstrate that dolls’ houses still stimulate strong feelings and memories, which echo those being uncovered in recent research into the social and material culture of dolls’ houses in the past.

This post explores the view that dolls’ houses were primarily didactic in form, teaching eighteenth- and nineteenth-century girls to know their place: in the home and subordinate to men. Early in their history, for instance, some dolls’ houses were given to newly married women to help them learn housekeeping. As Halina Pasierbska’s account of the dolls houses in the V&A Museum of Childhood notes about seventeenth-century baby houses, ‘their principal purpose was to teach the ladies of the house, both mistress and servants, how a well-run home should be organized. As visual aids they were important as few women could read’. Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when female literacy was higher, various writers recommended dolls’ houses as tools to teach girls household management and order.

But once we consider that dolls’ houses were not only visual but have a three-dimensional tactile nature then girls’ and women’s agency rather than their subordination comes to the fore. Rachel Barber explains, for example, that the seventeenth-century Dutch women who received kitchen-cabinets as marriage gifts were able to engage in a ‘tactile form of play’ in which they manipulated the order and display of a miniature domestic world.

Chen points out that this aspect of dolls’ house interaction is facilitated by the their miniaturized form. She cites Gaston Bachelard’s declaration ‘that one is able to possess the world by miniaturizing it’. So those girls and women who manipulated the objects and spaces within dolls’ houses were possessing and knowing – in her words – ‘all the visible objects in one’s own universe;’ thereby offering the female sex a sense of control and authority.

The people who responded on Twitter to my question about dolls’ houses certainly share this view.

One said:

‘Great subject! Parents use dollshouses to instill domestic values but kids often use them in quite different ways if unsupervised’.

Another contributor said she enjoyed playing with dolls’ houses because of:

‘The sense that you were responsible (age 5) for the little people that lived there and could make them comfortable’

When I replied that I often deliberately made my dolls uncomfortable (I do worry about my childhood self, when I remember my overwhelming urge to torture my dolls!), she replied:

‘Don’t worry – I also “told off” my doll children to overcome sense of helplessness at being told off by my own parents!’

The sense of personal control is particularly noticeable in the next two comments:

One woman relished:

‘Using wrapping paper to ’re-decorate’. Playing God in an unchanging universe. PC game ‘The Sims’ is v similar!!’

Another reflected that she enjoyed,

‘the omniscience/omnipotence they gave me. My very own panopticon–looking back on it–in which everything had to remain as I put it’.

This reference to Jeremy Bentham’s design is so informative! Here the dolls’ house owner positioned her past self as the observer of the imagined inhabitants of her dolls’ house. Of course the panoptican was designed so that the inmates of an institution did not know when they were being watched and were thus obliged to act as though they were watched at all times. Doesn’t this speak volumes about a girl enjoying the most extreme control over her small world?

Evidence for this manipulation of order in the past can also be read from between the lines in women’s accounts of making objects for their dolls’ house rooms and of re-ordering and decorating them. It is also hinted at in didactic fiction, perhaps ironically, particularly when the dolls’ house failed to teach girls to know their place.

In The Adventures of a Doll, published in 1816, for instance the eponymous doll goes on a series of adventures with different children into whose possession she falls. The book was intended to educate girls on appropriate moral behaviour, typically judged through their actions and capacity for emotional self-management.

In one chapter, the doll narrated the flaws of Amelia Fry, who temporarily owned her. These stemmed from her mother who was an archetypal ‘bad’ mother of the period: overly indulgent and failing to direct her daughter’s activities to be beneficial for her improvement, and offering her daughter a bad example in conduct by lacking in benevolence, an essential feeling in an age of sensibility. Both parental failings were demonstrated during a walk mother and daughter took on the beach. Bored and quarrelsome, they came across ‘a company of merry little girls’ playing with a ‘playhouse’ which the girls had created from a hollow in the rock. As in grander dolls’ houses, the girls were managing their domestic domain, arranging blue mussel shell and white cockle ornaments along with bits of broken china on the rock ‘shelves’.

The doll reported that Mrs Fry was temporarily moved by the girls’ healthy, happy faces and ‘could not but feel, that they had more joy with their simple shells and broken china, then she had ever had in her magnificent baby-house’. However, this charming encounter did not rescue the insensible Frys. Furious with the girls’ simple pleasures, Amelia poured all their ornaments into her lap and ran to the sea and threw them in. Although this behaviour was intended for censure, the girls reading about Amelia’s actions might have inferred that interacting with dolls’ houses did not always have to be about conformity!

Indeed, as a historian of marriage and marital roles, I would go so far as to suggest that dolls’ houses were a form of material culture that taught girls something of the paradoxes of married women’s adult lives. After all, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries wives had to be able to govern a household and domestic economy, take responsibility for its successful management in personal and public spheres, and make critical decisions about home and family. Yet they did so in full awareness of their inferior position to their husband as master of the domestic hierarchy and of the necessity of stepping back into a subordinate role when required.

Linda Pollock’s article ’Teach her to live under obedience’ has shown that wives had to practice the difficult art of selective deference without being spineless. This was challenging and needed to be taught to girls from childhood. Perhaps playing with dolls’ houses facilitated and made concrete the lesson of reconciling gender normativity and the capacity to survey and control?

Image used is from the Small Worlds’ Exhibition website.

To read more about dolls’ houses try:

Nancy Wei-Ning Chen, ‘The Art of Housekeeping: Dolls’ Houses and the Victorian Domestic Interior’

Chen, Nancy Wei-Ning, ‘Playing with Size and Reality: The Fascination of a Dolls’ House World’

Children’s Literature in Education

, 46/3, 2015, 278-295

The Storify of the Small Stories dolls’ house exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood 

Dolls’ Houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood, 2015

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