Fanny’s Dollhouses and Janet’s Cabinet Prompted Me to Dust Off My Miniature Room

Fanny Hayes' Cape May-style dollhouse, Hayes Presidential Center

When our return trip from Lakeside took us through Fremont, we stopped at Spiegel Grove, the home of Rutherford B. and Lucy Hayes. I’ve loved visiting one of my favorite Ohio Historical Society sites for years. When I was learning how to ride a bike, I practiced on the grounds’ wide paths. More recently, I’ve been drawn to Lucy’s White House china housed in a Cincinnati art-carved mahogany sideboard. But the two dollhouses that belonged to Fanny Hayes continue to be my favorite items on display at the Hayes Presidential Center.

One of the dollhouses is an elegant mansion reminiscent of the style of a Cape May, New Jersey home. The other was a gift to her from her parents for her first Christmas in the White House in 1877; it cost $15. Both were a welcome sight, because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about miniatures lately.

Fanny Hayes' dollhouse, built by M.M. Magruder in 1877 for $15, Hayes Presidential Center

It all started in May, when my friend Janet invited me over to see a cabinet that she and her husband had made for their daughter before they took it to her in Virginia. This wasn’t just any cabinet; it was a cabinet housing rooms for miniatures. One level featured a traditional Japanese interior and rock garden, while another was a modern art showplace. I couldn’t stop looking at the Colonial kitchen, with baskets hanging overhead, and a formal drawing room where an Italian toy theatre and a tiny petit-point purse were on display. A wedding portrait of the cabinet’s creators and working electric lamps made it even more special.

Seeing this spectacular gift renewed my interest in miniatures. Since then, I’ve been checking out how-to books for making miniature furniture and dollhouse accessories, marking my calendar for the Columbus Miniature Society’s annual show, and looking at websites offering micro-stitchery projects like petit-point rugs and even firescreens worked on silk gauze that pack 576 stitches in a square inch. I also read that there’s a tiny harp and music stand in the drawing room of the Brett House, an 1830’s dollhouse in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. The black-and-gold lacquer harp measures just over seven inches and is fully functional.

Fanny’s dollhouses are just a couple of the miniature treasures I’ve seen in museums. Abroad, there’s Petronella Oortman’s 17th century dolls’ house at the Rijksmuseum and Beatrix Potter’s dollhouse at Hill Top Farm. On the domestic front, I spent a lot of time marveling at the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago and the miniature rooms by Eugene Kupjack at the Baltimore Art Museum. Whenever I go to Colonial Williamsburg, I stop by the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum to see the miniature German dry goods store, a Nuremberg kitchen, and the dollhouse that Tasha Tudor created for the lovely Emma Birdwhistle and her husband, Captain Thaddeus Crane. But my favorite dollhouse of all is Queen Mary’s Doll’s House, which was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1920 to thank Queen Mary and George V for their leadership during World War I. On display at Windsor Castle, the dollhouse features a six-car garage, working elevators, running water, and miniature books written especially for the dollhouses by many celebrated writers, including Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle.

My miniature room

While I enjoy looking at dollhouses now, playing in my own dollhouses was best. The first dollhouse that Nails built for me was a house just like ours, painted light green with flowerboxes at the windows, but with a nifty roof garden and pond. Next came a version of Fanny’s mansion that had to be remodeled when it was too big to get out of the basement. When space was at a premium at home, Nails built a miniature room for me to display my painted Bavarian miniature furniture.

So it’s no surprise that after seeing Fanny’s dollhouses and Janet’s cabinet, I’ve pulled out my dollhouse furniture, dusted off my miniature room, and arranged my German dollhouse family inside.

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