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Picture this. I'm at Windsor Castle and I ask one of the staff there for directions. She tells me where to go, and then she says "and the Doll's House is over there", gesturing enthusiastically through a stone archway.
"Oh no," I smile. "Thank you but I don't really want to see the Doll's House. I came for the history of the castle."
She looks genuinely disappointed in me and I shuffle a little bit, eyes darting side to side as my smile starts to freeze.
"You have to see the Doll's House, it's beautiful," she says, as I thank her again and promise her that I will go and see it before I leave.
I did see the Doll's House at Windsor Castle and it is absolutely stunning, with working electricity, intricate details and even replicas of cars. But I didn't really appreciate it. If I'm honest, I queued to see it only in case I saw the guide again on the way out and she asked me what I thought of it. I absorbed so little of it in my memory that I couldn't remember much about it now if you asked me what was in it.
Fast forward a few years and I've just finished reading the brilliant book Life in Miniature by Nicola Lisle.
And I'm kicking myself.
|Photo by edgeeffectmedia.com on Unsplash|
As it turns out, doll's houses are seriously important to historians. They tell us not only about past fashions in terms of furniture, wallpaper and life in the home but also about literature, games, dress and what was really important to people in the past. They also reveal a thing or two about class systems - often the bare, basic rooms divided up for servant-dolls contrast vividly with the opulent chandeliers and decor of the rooms intended for aristocrat dolls. Some of the books in miniature doll's house libraries are tiny versions of actual books written at the time, giving us a huge insight into literature at the time the house was designed. Tiny place settings are sometimes adorned with the latest foods and meals eaten. In terms of history, dolls houses are tiny representations of what people were doing fifty, one hundred or four hundred years ago - just frozen in time.
I was surprised to hear that these dolls' houses - the first we know of being commissioned by Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in 1557-1558 - were not originally intended as children's toys. They were often housed in a cabinet and opened to show visitors, as a kind of status symbol or conversation starter. It was only from the nineteenth century that dolls' houses were mass produced and used as toys.
Life in Miniature looks back through the history of these tiny houses in detail and helps the reader understand how they're important to us as historians. As well as discussing their use and purpose, we learn about examples across Europe and in the UK that are delicately housed in museums and stately homes, quite often in archives under lock and key. At the back of the book there is a list of the dolls' houses that you can visit which is really useful as once you've read the book, you honestly can't wait to go out and find the nearest dolls house you can, to see what you can learn from it.
If you're interested in history, this book is a really good read, and not only if you like the history of toys or play. It'll give you an insight into analysing these miniature buildings for clues about the past, whether social or political and you'll appreciate them as snapshots of life frozen in time.
And I also want to call museums, stately homes and the heritage sector in general to bring out any dolls' houses they have in storage and put them out so they can be seen. Educate visitors too, in what to look for and why these incredible miniature pieces of architecture and design are still important to us, historically, today.
Me? I'm booking a trip to Windsor. I've got a second date with a doll's house.