The doll’s house and its links with home and identity

My previous post discussed the role of the dolls’ house as a tool for teaching girls and women in the past about their feminine roles and duties. Dolls’ houses also evoke strong feelings in people who own or interact with them. They have a powerful emotional dimension, even for those who stand in museums and wonder at their miniature magic. Indeed, descriptions of dolls’ houses often use an emotional lexicon.

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In the later nineteenth century, the interior designer J E Panton wrote guides for decorating homes. In her Nooks and Corners (1889) she set out the ideal arrangement of a nursery, accompanied by an illustration and description of a dolls’ house; advising parents and children how to make furniture for it, and decorate and clean it. In the midst of this, she reflected on her own childhood experiences, observing:

I sincerely believe my first love of decoration and adornment of the house was fostered, if it were not born, of the intense attachment I had for my dolls’ house.

Panton recognised that her dolls’ house helped foster her adult self-identity, which in turn was rooted in her very profound feelings for the object and its contents.

Such an emotional attachment to objects is very common and historians are increasingly investigating the intersections between emotions and materiality. Research into emotions shows that ‘experiences come to be lodged in things,’ and work on material culture reveals that emotional artefacts are themselves agents, helping construct people’s feelings, experiences, and identities.

As both a space and repository of domestic objects, homes are a particularly significant example of an emotional object as I have discussed in a previous post here. Dolls’ houses are similar emotional artefacts, because they harness and echo strong feelings for home, especially a childhood home.

Interestingly, many people today are more interested in dolls’ houses as dwellings rather than as spaces to play with dolls. I got lots of comments about this in the tweets responding to my question asking what people remembered about the dolls’ houses they played with as children. Several echoed one tweeter who said dolls ‘were irrelevant, it was all about interiors’.

One woman said:

I was usually so occupied with caring for the furniture and decoration that playing with the dolls became secondary.

Another said her interest was:

Definitely the house – in fact, I’m not sure mine had any dolls, just miniature furniture to move around.

The dolls’ house was often visually and textually represented as the heart of a home. Many dolls’ houses contained another dolls’ house. Susan Broomhall and Jennifer Spinks’ work on early modern Dutch dolls’ houses, for example, observes that women’s dolls’ houses often had a miniature version located in its nursery, even though their own dolls’ houses were designed for an adult. A wonderful example is Ann Sharp’s dolls’ house (1695) which has a tiny dolls’ house nestling within it.

Jessie E Ringwalt’s article on ‘The Paper-Doll’s House,’ in the series ‘Fun for the Fireside. A Help to Mothers’ in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine (vol 1010, 1880) described how to home-manufacture a paper dolls’ house. She associated emotions with the materiality of the paper dolls’ house, by referring to the scraps of paper and material used as constituting ‘the treasured wealth of children’. Moreover, she concluded that at

The very heart of this doll-house is found its own doll-house. In the playroom is placed a tiny dwelling cut in tinted paper … Beside this most minute of miniature houses, stand some admiring paper dolls’.

This image of the dolls’ house as the heart of a home wherein each house nestles within another like a set of Russian dolls is compelling.

Dolls’ houses also function as emotional objects past and present because they evoke profound feelings for relatives. People situate and sustain feelings about their families through material culture. For example, Georgian and Victorian autobiographers often constructed personal and character links with parents and key ancestors through portraits and prized family possessions, such as watches or jewellery.

In this blog, I’ve shown how families used objects to maintain family relationships across distances. In the same way, there is evidence that dolls’ houses act as symbols of family and generational affection and function to connect family members across time.

Most obviously dolls’ houses are often converted into family heirlooms that link generations. Broomhall and Spinks found that documentation for surviving Dutch cabinet houses reveals that their female owners frequently stipulated that they were to be passed down the feminine line to daughters, cousins, or nieces, forming a ‘matrilineal inheritance’. The Tate Baby House, which was constructed around 1760 was passed down from mother to daughter until its last owner died in 1929.

The evidence also suggests that the dolls’ house is important as an emotional artefact because it miniaturizes aspects of the childhood home through its decoration. The natal or childhood home itself has long evoked powerful feelings in adults. Below are a range of tweets on the affective pull of having a dolls’ house that was literally rooted in the childhood home:

I also loved that he used offcuts of carpet and wallpaper that we had in our full-sized house.

The dolls’ houses were waiting for us and he had used some of our wallpaper from our bedrooms …

It was a real mismash – offcuts of old wallpaper & carpet from our own sitting room … we loved it.

The same impulse is evident in historical dolls’ houses. The Killer Cabinet House, 1830-40, commissioned by Dr John Killer for his daughter, was decorated with the same wallpapers used to decorate the Killers’ home.

The discussion I generated on Twitter also reveals that alongside dolls, furniture, and ornaments, dolls’ houses house people’s feelings for loved family members. In fact I would say that everyone who volunteered information about a dolls’ house mentioned one or more relative: specifically father, grandfather, great grandfather, mother, grandmother, uncle, great aunt, aunt, brother, sister, and nephew.

In these twitter accounts modern dolls’ houses are still handed across generations – not for any intrinsic monetary value, but for their emotional worth. One tweeter commented on her dolls’ house:

my aunt took hers back after I outgrew it, and she’s just had a granddaughter, so maybe she’ll be next to play with it.

People also remember with enormous fondness the male family members who made their dolls’ houses. Indeed I would say that the majority of the people who tweeted me said their dolls’ house was made by their fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers, and also uncles and bothers. Here are just some examples:

My Dad made me a beautiful model of our own Victorian house; he was a very talented woodworker. I loved making furniture etc for it.

Family play is exactly the right term. My dad loved the process of making it, just as my husband loved making my daughter’s.

Mothers and grandmothers are also involved in making the house and its contents, as well as its decoration. One woman remembered:

my mum made my sister (Anna) and I a castle, called ‘Kirna Castle’ after our names… she made all the furniture and the dolls too.

Another said the pleasure of her dolls’ house was that it was

A chance to be creative with my nan, as we made objects to decorate our shared doll’s house. Tiny ceramic plates, card fireplaces etc.

The critical thing is that it was the memory of these dolls’ houses that were used as conduits for fond memories of loved relatives, so that as an emotional artefact the dolls’ house comes to physically represent and sustain family relationships.

Indeed, accounts of personal experiences of dolls’ houses are more often than not recounted through memories. Memory, in particular nostalgia, is a medium for fighting the passage of time and loss of loved ones. Recent work on the role of dolls’ houses in elderly women’s lives, for example, reveals how nostalgia shapes their use. Hyun-Jung Oh explains that the older women who collect and furnish these houses participate in a ‘cult of nostalgia’, objectifying ‘their memory or imagination of childhood or ancestry, such that Tudor, Victorian, or 1940s styles are favoured’. The medium of dolls’ houses allows them to return to childhood and the ‘warmth of the home’. The dolls’ house thus gives them a sense of control over objects ‘that are manipulable and protected from inexorable human destiny’.

This is identified for Victorian and Edwardian dolls’ houses too. Nancy Wei Ning Chen points out that playing with a dolls’ house ‘preserves and condenses a particular moment when all objects inside it are exhibited in an intact condition with no traces of having been tarnished. And the dolls’ house inhabitants, if any, are carefully posed to play their parts in the pageant. Indeed, the dolls’ house world freezes action at a particular time and position’.

I suggest that Georgian and Victorian dolls’ houses were also associated with nostalgia through its function as a glue in family life. I’ve talked on this blog about the way in which research on nostalgia shows that it is a benign force and activity that soothes people who are encountering transitions in life and binds families together. My own research on people’s memories of the parental home shows that nostalgia was also located in material culture. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century memoirists often located their self-identities and personalities in the nostalgic matrix of parent and parental home.

I suggest that dolls’ houses were and are a concrete, portable, and manageable artefact that can stimulate nostalgic feelings for a lost family life but also helps manage and soothe those emotions. So, as emotional artefacts dolls’ houses were and still are intimately associated with learning about oneself and one’s place in the world, and symbolise through emotions and nostalgia the centrality of family to self-identity.

For more, see Nancy Wei-Ning Chen: The Art of Housekeeping and Playing with Size and Reality; Hyun-Jung Oh, Putting Together Memories and Fantasies.

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