My First Doll's House
Updated: Feb 3
When I was a child growing up in the 60s and 70s, doll's houses were a familiar sight in everyday culture. But even then, I suspected that they weren't entirely harmless. I distinctly remember an exhibition at our local library which featured a large doll's house in a glass case. Its purpose was to demonstrate various hidden threats that might be lurking in the home. In each room of the house was a tiny doll, blissfully unaware of its imminent peril, and we children had to spot the hazard and mark it down on a piece of paper (there may possibly have been a prize for the most safety conscious/neurotic answers). I can still picture the flight of stairs along which the flex of a vacuum cleaner snaked treacherously, waiting for the small china doll at the top to catch its foot and tumble to the bottom...
I suppose I should tell you a little about the house that first came into my possession:
I was four years old and didn't even know that I wanted a doll's house! But my grandparents had, apparently, spent all year making this marvellous thing to present to me at Christmas. My grandfather was a cabinet maker by trade, so the house he made for me was solidly built and beautifully in proportion. Every room had working lights (there was even a tiny working table lamp, as I recall), controlled from a transformer in the roof, which you accessed by opening up a hinged section. It had a printed red brick façade and tiled roof
My grandmother was responsible for all the furnishing and decoration. My grandparents were not rich and she could only afford to buy one or two items of furniture at a time. But, by the time Christmas rolled around it was complete with a fully equipped modern kitchen (including food), two bedrooms, a bathroom, a 'Chippendale' style dining room with extending table, and a drawing room complete with grand piano. And a family of four stiff little figures frozen in various attitudes; the mother had a cake permanently stuck to her outstretched hands, I remember, and the daughter - a teenage girl in a yellow dress - lounged sulkily, one hand on a hip. Curiously, the women in the household stood, while the men were moulded in a seated position - father reading the paper, and son with one hand raised over the piano keyboard as if in mid sonata.
There are photographs of me with my mother on Christmas morning, examining the doll's house. I think she was even more delighted with it than I was and adopted a protective, proprietorial attitude towards it, making it clear to me that this was a Precious Thing and I had to take very great care of it. I think I was a little over-awed by it, to be honest, terrified of breaking one of the spindly-legged chairs or losing any of the tiny spoons in the cutlery caddy. Nobody I knew owned a doll's house like this. My next door neighbour (whose father worked in the toy department at Harrods and was, therefore, as close to being a real live Father Christmas as it was possible to be) had a commercially-made house, but it was a sad spectacle compared to mine and didn't even have real carpets, just designs printed onto the floor.
Over the years, familiarity led, not to contempt, but certainly to carelessness. Pieces of furniture did get dropped and broken. Usually not by me but by some other, more heavy-handed child who had been allowed to play with it. In frustration at the mother doll's perpetual state of post-baking bliss I snapped her hands off trying to remove the cake and the father doll disappeared at some point, never to be seen again. There were disastrous experiments in re-decoration, one of which almost entirely stripped off the tiled roof paper.
However, I never quite lost my sense of awe for this doll's house. Sometimes I would stick my head into one of the rooms, close my eyes and breathe in the smell of wood and paint - imagining myself tiny enough to move in and claim true ownership. Even when I should have been revising for my 'O' levels I found it a welcome refuge from study: armed with a fretsaw and plans I had found in a book from the library, I set about making a complete set of drawing room furniture in Regency style, complete with button-backed blue silk upholstery.
I no longer own this doll's house, but I know where it is; it now lives with the mother of my best friend, and I am sure she takes better care of it than I ever did. Guilty pangs of conscience assail me occasionally for my callow rejection of this gift of love, but my head was turned, at the age of 15 by the opportunity to acquire a new house - one which possessed the period details I craved, and which could be a blank canvas for my own creative efforts. The could only be room for one house on display, so the old one was consigned, like so much of childhood's detritus, to my parents' loft. Having saved up my money, I commissioned "David Hunt of Bristol" to make me the Georgian fronted and pedimented house I still own.
I remember being insistent that the windows had to be glass, not plastic, and that it would have internal doors that could open and shut. As you can see, it is painted a fetching "Suffolk Pink" (which was prescient, as I now live in East Anglia). It stands on a base that was found in a Salvation Army furniture warehouse and one day I plan to convert that cupboard into extra rooms as the shelves are the perfect height.
That 'one day' has been waiting for almost 40 years as this house is still a work in progress, however. A bit like life, I suppose: It has accompanied me the length of England, through every move and life event, and has sat quietly in a corner of the marital bedroom for nearly 15 years. Perhaps now is the moment, finally, to open its doors once again and write a new chapter...