When we hear the word dollhouse we think of a small toy house for children to play with. However, the history of the dollhouse is anything but small. The earliest known examples of dollhouses were found in Egyptian tombs and created nearly five thousand years ago. These wooden models of servants, furnishings, boats, livestock and pets were placed in the Pyramids and almost certainly made for religious purposes.
Dollhouses as we know them today were originally designed for adults or as historical records of the period. Begun in Europe in the 1600's, they were referred to as "Baby Houses, “ or "Cabinet Houses" and were display cases made up of rooms. They showed idealized interiors complete with detailed furnishings and accessories. These cabinets were built with architectural details and filled with miniature household items and were solely the playthings of adults. German craftsmen were the leading dollhouse makers prior to Word War I and these houses were shipped throughout Central Europe, England and America. Carefully designed and often referred to as miniature houses, “dolls” houses were uniquely constructed custom houses built for the upper classes who could afford them.
Manufacturers began making replicas of houses and furniture in uniform scales in the late 1800’s and as the Industrial Revolution expanded the folding dollhouse came into vogue with a “standard” scale of one inch to one foot being commonplace. Then in 1924 Sir Edwin Lutyens designed Queen Mary's Dollhouse. This house included electricity, a water system, gold leaf etchings, a chiming grandfather clock, original paintings, marble tiled floors, hand carved ceilings, and working elevators. In this way, the dollhouse display began to look more formal and like “real” rooms in miniature. Today, this is an important aspect for the dollhouse collector.
With the advent of World War II, dollhouses were mass produced in the US and usually made of plastic or sheet metal. American companies of the early 20th century were Roger Williams Toys, Tootsietoy, Schoenhut, and the Wisconsin Toy Co. Dollhouse dolls and miniatures were also produced in Japan, mostly by copying original German designs and as a collectible fell out of fashion becoming more “play” toy. Then in the 1970's a resurgence in the miniature movement began, with a renewed interest in wooden dollhouses which have detailed architectural interiors and exterior designs.
Building dollhouses has since become a popular and affordable hobby for the masses, which is quite a change from its humble beginnings, when it was only available to the privileged few. Many of us enjoy collecting, in one sense or another, and may find a great deal of fascination in the world of miniatures (many museums display one of a kind or historical dollhouses; see our links to dollhouse museums). From ready-made and decorated houses to kits to custom built houses, the miniature houses of today are more elaborate and can include electricity, custom designed furnishings, outdoor scenes, hand painted porcelains, inlaid wood, crown moldings, silk wall coverings, working door bells and “real” life looking dolls.