That Christmas morning in 1973, I ran to a beautiful two-story Marx Dollhouse next to the Christmas tree. I remember organizing all the hard plastic pieces–furniture, family members and pets (one dog and a cat.) I’d peer in each room marveling at the colorful walls filled with images of furniture and fixtures. I loved that dollhouse. There was a terrace on the second floor and even a breezeway. I’d spend hours rearranging the furniture and setting up the family members in different parts of house. I have regretted not saving my Marx Dollhouse from the ravages of rust and a life in the garage.
But that Marx dollhouse was a spark that lit a future lifelong love of miniatures and that “peculiar creativity” that comes with organizing an imagined little world of interiors, houses and things. I have loved dollhouses and miniatures ever since. Wherever I’ve lived (and that’s been a lot of places!) I have gravitated to miniatures and dollhouses in that city, and always had some part of them in my world; I’ve sought out miniature shows, miniature retail stores, bought miniatures when I could afford to do so, and built Greenleaf and RealGoodToys‘ dollhouses in tiny living spaces.
My lasting memory from my young adult years is this photograph of a Glencroft Cozy Tudor I built back in 1989.
I lived in New York City and New Jersey for many years, and I remember the trips to the Dollhouse Factory in Lebanon, New Jersey. This store was a miniature mega-store and had a global reputation that attracted customers (pre-Internet) from all over the world, so folks made the drive to this small town in Hunterdon County, New Jersey.
I can’t begin to describe the store: it was a crammed old house that was part retail store, studio and showroom and very much like a Lowes for miniaturists–filled with supplies, lumber, tools, and of course, miniatures and dollhouse kits from all over the world. I have visited tons of miniature/dollhouse stores but the Dollhouse Factory holds a special place in my heart; it was instrumental in how I started understanding the business of the hobby; the art and craftsmanship of the miniatures; collecting miniatures; and embracing a hobby that became a craft and why I can now call myself a miniaturist! The owners, Robert and Judith Dankanics, after 45+ years closed the physical space in 2001 and then closed the online business in 2017 and retired the name, The Dollhouse Factory.
The catalogues were also something special; they were huge and filled with pages and pages of all sorts of products for dollhouses and accessories. I love those catalogues and I have saved a few of the them. Here’s a great New York Times article about Robert and Judith Dankanics when they were just getting started, Small Dollhouse Now a Big Thing, August 24, 1975 . The greatest gift from this business–the quality of service, products and support was helped me embrace miniatures as works of art and an art form, and the realization that dollhouses are hardly child’s play..
Most of all, this journey whet my appetite to research and study the social history of dollhouses and miniatures. I am a librarian so that came easy. I also became interested in the design and architecture of American homes as well as architecture. My brother began investing in real estate and became interested in housing styles and local housing architecture, so I bought him a copy of Virginia Savage McAlester‘s seminal book, A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture .
The book, first published in 1984 (and later revised and published under only Virginia’s name in 2013), is a nearly 900-page primer that chronologically and stylistically tracks almost every major architectural style represented in the domestic spaces of this country. This book has been my guidepost to house design and inspired the types of miniature houses design that I love and hope to one day create. I proudly have a tattered 1984 copy on my shelf as well as the 2015 revision; that education shifted my interest to modernist architectural movements such as Bauhaus and its influence in art, architecture and interior design.
I have been blessed to have traveled extensively and no trip is complete without a visit to the local or featured museum and most, believe it or not, include some type of miniatures! But nothing comes close to the special wing in the Rijksmuseum, (Amsterdam, Netherlands) dedicated to the dolls’ houses (note the difference in the European name) of the 17th century and most notably, Petronella Oortman‘s magnificent dolls’ house.
And YES, Queen Mary’s Dolls House is an equally magnificent dolls’ house and a more contemporary masterpiece in comparison and looks like a dolls house. But two distinctions that bring miniaturists back to Oortman’s incredible dolls’ house: 1) her dolls’ house represents the amazing curatorial activity of wealthy women utilizing the finest craftsmen, artists, and leading manufacturers of the day (so not child’s play!) and 2) her dolls house is essentially an exquisite, tortoise shell cabinet standing almost 80 inches in height. Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house symbolizes both the origin of “dollhouses/dolls’ houses” as art and a collecting and curatorial endeavor. The Petronella Oortman dolls’ house is the grandest representation of miniatures as an art form. Each time I visit the Rijksmuseum, I spend at least an hour in that wing, just staring at the beauty and the wonder of that dolls’ house hoping to discover something that I hadn’t noticed before and enjoying the throngs of museum visitors also gazing in wonder. The Petronella Oortman dolls’ house was featured in the January 2021 issue of DollsHouseandMiniatureScene. But I will save the Oortman dolls’ house for another lengthy post:)
In the last five years, I have been blessed to have space to get serious about growing my collection and building and renovating dollhouses and creating miniatures. In the last two years, I had a studio at the beautiful M Street Art Complex in Fresno where I was in the company of a wonderful group of local visual artists. I finally had a space to display my miniature collection, build and renovate dollhouses, and enjoy meeting folks during the city’s ArtHop. I was thrust into the spotlight and had to talk about my collection, my work and process and what inspired me, and answer all sorts of questions as visitors marveled at the dollhouses and miniatures.
That’s what artists do, and I am now blessed to own a home so I have dedicated one of the rooms as my home studio for my miniatures and dollhouses. I can now create at all hours so on to the podcast, mini.Futures! That Marx Dollhouse was both an awakening and the best “toy” that I’d ever own.
Mr. and Mrs. Dollhouse Decide to Close Shop: business started in basement, went global
New Jersey Hills Media Group
October 31, 2001
Hidden Women of History: Petronella Oortman and her giant dolls’ house
The Conversation: academic rigor, journalistic flair
by Susan Broomhall, Professor of History, University of Western Australia
January 2, 2019
Virginia McAlester is the Most Popular Architecture Writer in America
By Alexandra Lange Jun 6, 2019