Collecting Dollhouses

As doll houses are meant to be, Faith Bradford’s make-believe home for her well-to-do toy family was a fantasy come true. Miss Bradford devoted more than 50 years to collecting the tiny furnishings, and in 1954 she gave her dollhouse to the Smithsonian National Mu-seum of American History.

To accommodate the approximately 806 objects, which included furniture, linens, toys and household items, Bradford’s dollhouse evolved from a four-room design she inherited in 1887 from her older sister, to the 23-room structure now at the Smithsonian. The dollhouse measures 4 1/2 feet high, 7 1/2 feet wide and about 1 1/2 feet deep. According to a former Smithsonian curator, the dollhouse “is one-room deep to show completely the contents of each room.” A hall, extending the length of each floor, “is seen through the doorways and gives a feeling of depth and reality.”

The dollhouse is furnished as any home would have been for an affluent family in 1910, equipped with newly invented appliances and labor-saving devices, and the latest furniture styles blended with inherited pieces. The multitude of objects reflect Bradford’s attention to even the most minute details, which she described in a manuscript (published by the Smithsonian) accompanying the dollhouse.

The dining room features weathered-oak furniture accented by a metal-fringed globe chandelier over the table. Cut glass is displayed in the corner cupboard.

To complement the drawing room’s formality, proper lace curtains are combined with tassel-pull shades and gold-trimmed green velvet drapes matching the archway portieres leading into the hall.

The drawing room is for guests, but the parlor welcomes family informality. Comfortable Victorian furniture is in place. Roses are scattered over the green wallpaper matching the ecru draperies over lace curtains. The blue-striped wallpaper serves as the background for furniture, including two breakfronts and a Winthrop desk.

The doll children would share one of the three bathrooms (a rare number in that day). The daughters play with a circa 1843 doll dressed in blue silk
Even during America’s early years, girls were able to enjoy dollhouses crafted by doting fathers, grandfathers or local carpenters. Mid-to late-19th century carpenters, who had a greater number of tools and more time, continued to construct dollhouses, according to noted toy and doll specialist Dorothy McGonagle.

Many dollhouses were imported, mainly from Germany and France. According to McGonagle, the imported dollhouses were apt to be larger and fancier than the plain houses made in this country. Attention was also paid to detail, such as filigreed railings. Depending upon condition, a late-19th-century German wood dollhouse by Gotschalck now sells for $10,000-$20,000.

In the mid-19th century, American manufacturers began to venture into dollhouse production. In 1855, for example, McLoughlin Bros. founded a company that produced dollhouses, paper dolls, children’s books, blocks and games. It was necessary to assemble the lithographed cardboard dollhouses that were sometimes sold as part of a complete village. “Today, condition can be imperfect from usage,” McGonagle noted. Depending upon condition and number of buildings, McLoughlin Villages sell “from $400 to $1,500,” she said.

Late in the 19th century, R. Bliss & Co. introduced dollhouses with brightly colored lithographed paper applied to lightweight wood. Bliss dollhouses tended to be tall and rectangular with a porch and overhang, columns and simple staircases. “In good condition, a four-room example is in the $1,500 to $4,000 range,” she said.

More recently, from 1920 into the mid-20th century, Tynie-Toy produced relatively simple dollhouses, including a New England townhouse. The painted wood facades featured accurate yet understated detailing, and often a Palladian window. The front was often removable, bringing the six to eight rooms into view and giving small hands freedom of movement. A Tynie-Toy New England dollhouse, painted white with green trim, shutters and a garden trellis with two benches, sold at a Skinner auction for $17,250. McGonagle believes the presence of a trellis influenced the price.

To be a home, a house must have furnishings and people. Just as they do for full-size furnishings, tastes for miniatures vary, and workmanship, style, condition, rarity and age determine value. For example, a rare circa-1830 Evans & Cartwright tin-plate table with highly decorative legs in excellent condition sold for $2,475 at Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, N.J. Ormolu and Biedermeier pieces can bring high prices according to owner Jeanne Bertoia.

A chandelier, depending on how elaborate the design, can bring thousands of dollars. Biedermeier furniture is also highly valued. Withington Auctions of Hillsboro, N.H., recently sold a five-piece parlor set for $1,400. Multiple Tynie-Toy pieces are often offered at Skinners. A grouping of 15, which included living room and dining room furniture, a bookcase and accessories, sold for $2,000. Depending upon the number of pieces and rarity, Tynie-Toy settings “average $500 to $1,000,” McGonagle said. “Very elaborate Spanish furniture is very rare. A single spinet piano might be $200.”

Late-19th and early 20th century dollhouse people from France and Germany are also highly desirable. The dolls are usually fashioned with bisque heads and cloth bodies. At Skinners, “fully dressed, glass-eye dolls by noted doll maker Simon Halbig sell for $300 to $400; painted-eye versions are $150 to $200. Babies and children are $50 to $150.

At Withington Auctions, 19th century German and French dolls average between $200 and $300, depending upon detailing. At Bertoia Auctions, depending upon condition, miniature people sell from $100 to $300.
Condition, rarity and buyer interest determine dollhouse prices that can range from $100 to the $250,000 paid recently for the “Mexican House,” according to Jeanne Bertoia.

“The most valuable dollhouses were made in France and Germany with luxurious details, string-operated elevators, ornate chandeliers and parquet flooring — everything you could find in a real house,” said Dolores Smith of Withington Auctions. “A good example can sell for more than $50,000.”