By Nik Shultz
Baby shoes, travel shampoos, doll-sized washing machines, a tiny basket of Easter candy, children-sized tea cups, and cat beds shaped like little thrones or couches are all things that spark joy in my heart. I know I’m not the only person that sees a tiny version of an everyday object and squeals in delight, even if only internally, because humans have been making and collecting miniatures for a while now.
When I was a kid, one of my best friends had a dollhouse that her grandfather had made for her, and not one of the brightly colored plastic ones for kids either. The roof had shingles and the walls were wallpapered. All of the dolls had lovely Victorian clothes on, including a baby with a white lace dress and bonnet. There was a tiny kitchen with a tiny cast iron stove and pans, as well as tiny cups and plates. There was a small ceramic sink and a toilet with a lid that opened. There was a drop-side crib for the baby. This dollhouse was displayed in the family dining room and I was supremely jealous of it.
Such dollhouses and the miniatures that occupy them are marketed towards adult collectors, which is how dollhouses began in the 17th century in Europe. They were called cabinet houses, because they opened like a china cabinet, to show off the owner’s expensive miniature collection. They were mainly displays of wealth, but also social roles. “Nuremburg Kitchens” were miniature kitchens mothers used to teach their daughters about managing a household. In the 18th century there were “Baby Houses” which were miniature recreation of the owner’s home. It wasn’t until the 19th century and the industrial revolution that dollhouses began to be tools of play for children.
Even now there is often still a distinction made by adult miniaturists that these are for them and the more mass produced plastic dollhouses are for their kids. There are several museums devoted to miniatures and famous miniature displays such as the Thorne rooms at The Art Institute of Chicago and Queen Mary’s dollhouse on display in Windsor Castle. There are magazines for miniaturists and stores both physical and online where you can buy kits for making dollhouses or individual supplies for customization such as scaled down wallpaper. I personally follow lots of miniaturists on Instagram, where they can share pictures of their collections and progress updates of work on their dollhouses. Generally miniatures have a prestige and maturity as artisans or hobbyists that making furniture for a child’s dollhouse doesn’t.
But adults also collect the mass produced miniatures that have been marketed to children, such as Barbie dolls, Mini Brands, or other toys that were popular when they were growing up or their kids were growing up. It’s clear that regardless of age, people love small things. So why is there shame attached to being adult that wants to play with toys, but not to collector of miniatures? Is keeping these miniatures on a shelf out of kids’ reach about protecting delicate art from children or protecting a delicate sense of maturity from the label of childishness?
Featured Image: “La Vie en Rose/ shabby chic dollhouse” by bthierus is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0