DREAM HOUSES: WELL-CRAFTED DOLLHOUSES WELCOME COLLECTORS
Selection of toys offered at Skinner's auction on 9/14/96. Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers
Electricity came late in the 19th century, as did the telephone. Many city folks couldn’t afford houses and lived in boardinghouses or tenement buildings. Built-in bathtubs, store-bought clothes and modern conveniences we take for granted today were rare.
As wealth grew in the 19th century, so did homes. Families took pride in their houses as a reflection of who they were, and where they were headed. This pride resonated in the world of Victorian children who played with dollhouses and furniture constructed in exact likeness to the homes they were growing up in.
First sculpted by doting fathers and itinerant craftsmen, these detailed recreations mirrored the lines of such 18th century designers as Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Chippendale.
“During the Victorian era, people who could afford it, hired cabinetmakers to build dollhouses for their children,” says Mim Ewing, toy and doll specialist at Skinner Gallery in Bolton, Mass.
“When they show up now at auction, we rarely get them full of furniture simply because collectors know about them and the furniture gets separated.”
By the early-20th century, a number of American toy companies capitalized on a booming plaything. The oldest and probably the most important for the serious collector is Bliss.
Founded in Pawtucket, R.I., in 1832, they manufactured dollhouses from 1895 through the early-1900s. The color and detail in their lithographed designs is well known. Easy to spot, the name Bliss usually appears over the front door.
The Tynietoy Company set up in 1920 by Marion I. Perkins and Amy Vernon in Providence, R.I., is another big name.
“Their dollhouses look just like the real thing with absolute exquisite detail,” says Ewing. This two-woman firm used a cottage industry of local craftsmen to make a Nantucket house, a New England townhouse, barns, garages and even a theater.
“I’ve found that people generally have strong feelings about dollhouses or no feelings at all,” Ewing added.
Also, this is an area of collecting that includes both men and women. Sometimes you’ll see a dollhouse inherited by a woman and her husband will build the furniture or even construct the entire house and contents from scratch. They get to be family projects over the years.
Like other collectible toys, condition is a critical factor. “If they’ve been heavily played with, they lose value,” says Ewing. A house with original furniture will be worth more.
As for the 1950s metal dollhouses with plastic furniture that some of us cherished as kids, Ewing says the “market is not here yet.” But as the older stuff disappears, we may see it happen.
Skinner’s Sept. 14, 1996, toy and doll auction featured a mansard roof dollhouse dating from the late-19th century. The three-story building contained the original wallpaper and faux paper parquet floors. Expected to bring $800-$1,200, the house sold for $2,185.
Q. Recently I came into possession of quite a few old spoons and wonder if one marked Pan American Exposition might have some value? I have enclosed a photo for your consideration. Mary Ethel Pane, Pittsburgh.
A. Your souvenir spoon pictures President McKinley. Ironically, the 1901 Buffalo Pan American Exposition is where McKinley was assassinated. The fair was intended in part to celebrate the use of Niagara Falls for hydroelectric power.
The spoon falls under the category of World’s Fair collectibles. Postcards, matchbooks, programs, napkin rings, and coins are a few examples of the many items available.
Collectors favor items from the 1939 New York Fair as well as the two big Chicago Fairs of 1893 and 1933. Another popular one is the St. Louis Fair of 1904.
World’s Fair memorabilia is a good avenue for beginning collectors because there’s plenty around and you can pick up more at decent prices. The 1939 New York Fair alone had 1,500 exhibitors who either gave away or sold items to 45 million people.
Your sterling spoon is valued at about $95.
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