A few years after our oldest daughter was born, my father-in-law built her a beautiful, custom-designed, wooden dollhouse

She got to pick out the style, a Colonial with a wide front porch, and the colors, blue for the house and pink and white for the intricate trim. He spent countless hours down in his basement workshop cutting miniature roof shingles, nailing together floors and walls, and pasting on teeny-tiny pieces of wallpaper.

A dollhouse made with love.

It was a lot of work but the outcome was stunning and our daughter was thrilled (and so was I). A few years later, he repeated the process for our younger daughter, who chose a purple and teal Victorian dollhouse with gables and a porch swing. This father of two sons and eventual grandfather of four girls went on to build two more dollhouses, each one more beautiful and more evolved than the last. In fact, I think my nieces’ dollhouses had electric lights, a working doorbell, and even more spacious rooms.

The back view.

Finding the Right Antique Dollhouse

Whether you are a child, a serious collector, or an avid hobbyist, finding the right antique dollhouse is important. Are you looking for an elaborate Victorian with a unique design, a contemporary and spacious brick home, or a small wooden country cottage with less square footage? Is yours going to be played with or is it something to display?

If you are adding to a collection, you’ll probably want an antique dollhouse that is custom made or handcrafted. Some vintage dollhouses are excellent examples of American folk art. Perhaps, like my father-in-law, you’re looking to build one. In that case, you’ll need a dollhouse kit and there are many to choose from, including one for building an elaborate wooden dollhouse with working electricity or a simpler kit such as the vintage Sugarplum Cottage Kit. With its precut plywood tab & slot construction, this type of kit is a better option for a young or beginning hobbyist.

If you want a simpler project, look for a Sugarplum Cottage Kit.

Of course, there are always more kid-friendly options from brands such as Melissa & Doug, Mattel, and Fisher-Price. Think Barbie Dreamhouse or a Playmobil house with plastic furniture. These houses are often already assembled, made of durable materials, and perfect for little hands.

A History of Dollhouses

Dollhouses didn’t start out as toys for children. Known as baby houses, the earliest known one was commissioned by a Duke from Bavaria in the 16th century. (“Baby” in baby house comes from the old English word meaning doll.) These early dollhouses were custom orders and usually consisted of cabinet display cases made up of individual rooms and the interior design featured very detailed scale furniture and accessories, including tiny chandeliers for the living room, mirrors, and doors with hinges. There were upholstered chairs in the dining room, scaled bedspreads, and wool rugs for the bedrooms. All hand-crafted, these baby houses were made specifically for adults and often owned by wealthy women living in Holland, England, and Germany during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Tate house is an example of the smaller dollhouses, featuring realistic exteriors that became popular in Europe in the 18th century. Each dollhouse was unique and custom made. Most dollhouses were made in Nuremberg, Germany, which was known as the toy city, up until World War I. Before the war, Nuremberg dollhouses were exported to America and Britain. Eventually, other companies in other countries began manufacturing dollhouses.

One of the most famous dollhouses built for an adult is Queen Mary’s Dollhouse made for England’s Queen Mary. Constructed between 1921 and 1924, it is the ultimate British dollhouse and still on full display at Windsor Castle. The dollhouse has enormous square footage and impeccable interior design. Each one of its many spacious rooms – from the downstairs wine cellar and servants’ quarters to the upstairs bedrooms and living rooms – is furnished in full detail with exquisite dollhouse miniatures. The house includes electricity, running hot and cold water, and working elevators.

Once the Industrial Revolution ushered in the ability to mass-produce toys, traditional dollhouses and miniature furniture became more readily available for children. There were a number of European companies known for their dollhouses, including Christian Hacker, Moritz Gottschalk Elastolin, and Moritz Reichel in Germany, and their English counterparts were companies such as Silber & Fleming, Evans & Cartwright, and Lines Brothers (which later became Tri-ang).

A late 19th-early 20th century Bliss Manufacturing Company dollhouse.

Finally, dollhouses started being made in the United States by The Bliss Manufacturing Company by the end of the 19th century. The TynieToy Company of Providence, Rhode Island, made replicas of American antique houses and furniture in a uniform scale. Other American companies of the early 20th century included Roger Williams Toys, Tootsietoy, Schoenhut, and the Wisconsin Toy Co. 

Dollhouse Construction

After World War II, dollhouses were mass-produced in American factories. The outside and interior design were crafted with much less detail. These dollhouses were often made of painted sheet metal and outfitted with plastic furniture and thus, appealed to children rather than adults. 

In dollhouses made in the United States, the backs are open to reveal the dollhouse’s interior design. This style differs from dollhouses made in Britain, which often have a hinged front that, once opened, reveals the inside rooms of the house. Contemporary children’s play dollhouses are mostly in 1:18 (or 2/3″) scale, while 1:12 (or 1″) scale is common for dollhouses made for adult collectors.

A typical English dollhouse has doors that open up to reveal the inside of the house.

Today, there are just as many adults who both collect and build dollhouses. Metal, plastic and wood are all materials used during the 20th century to make dollhouses. Today’s more contemporary dollhouse is made of plywood or medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Kits that use thinner plywood are assembled using a tab and slot system (and the correct glue). These dollhouse kits usually may be purchased at a lower cost than those made from MDF or heavier plywood, but they may still require siding, shingles, or other features to make the house look realistic.

Furnishing your Dollhouse

I had just as much fun as my daughters decorating and putting the finishing touches on their dollhouses. We were lucky to have a local store near us that sold wooden furniture for any room you would find in a real house, from the kitchen and dining room to the bedrooms and bathroom, to the front porch and bay window. 

This set of primitive dollhouse furnishings sold for $86 in Sept. 2020.

We made many visits there as we plotted out the houses’ interior design. We found the perfect family to move into each dollhouse. We picked out wallpaper, curtains, rugs, and other fabric accessories. Every holiday warranted new seasonal decorations, inside and out. But I think what we enjoyed most was accessorizing with mini treasures and dollhouse miniatures such as books, dishes, cups and trays, food items, lamps, and so much more.

A Dollhouse for Generations

When our oldest recently announced she was having a baby and it was going to be a girl, my very generous and energetic 84-year-old father-in-law immediately proclaimed he was ready, willing, and able to get started on the next generation of dollhouses.

In the end, my daughter decided she would rather pass down her treasured, almost antique dollhouse to her baby girl. I’ve no doubt she will have as much fun playing with it as my daughter did. Either way, we are all looking forward to finding a new doll family to move in, purchasing new furniture for the interior and of course, decorating and redecorating it for years to come.

Lisa Mancuso has an Associates Degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology and a Bachelors Degree from Stony Brook University. She has worked as the Associate Director for Creative Marketing at McCall’s Magazine. As a staff writer at the National Association of Professional Women, Lisa wrote feature articles for the bi-monthly online newsletter. She has served as a reporter for the Northshore News Group and ICD Publications.

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