In 1974, my mother built me a dollhouse, a classic Victorian with six large rooms. She painted it pink and blue, my favorite colors, made a cobblestone, contact-paper path to encircle it, and fashioned a garden of plastic plants. She crocheted tiny rugs and tiled the kitchen floor. She sewed curtains for the windows: red velvet for the parlor, lace for the master bedroom, with tiny thread tiebacks. On walls were paintings she made of old postcards. The house was strung with real electric lights.
The dollhouse was the best toy I would ever own. And it was much more than a toy. As a character in my dollhouse—my mother had sewn a doll with long hair and glasses that resembled me—I could be an orphan sleeping in a cot built from a ring box. Or a teenager lying with a boyfriend on a tiny bearskin rug, drinking wine from a mini bottle and devouring a polymer chocolate cake the size of a dime. When I arranged tiny brass beds or slid a plastic roast chicken in the oven, I entered another universe.
And yet, at the same time, I also ventured more deeply inside myself.
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The social history of dollhouses is at odds with the idea that dollhouses are spaces of emotion, freedom, and imagination.
In the beginning, dollhouses had only two purposes: display and pedagogy. First built in the 17th century in northern Europe, primarily in Germany, Holland, and England, dollhouses were designed for adults. They were closely associated with wealth and served as markers of social class and status. As Faith Eaton explains in The Ultimate Dolls House Book, the German word dockenhaus meant not dollhouse but “miniature house.” And a miniature house was not a house to play with. In Holland, these exhibits of wealth were called “cabinet houses.” The front of the house opens like a china cabinet on hinges that can be closed and locked. Inside cabinet houses, people could both show off and conceal their collections of expensive miniature objects.