Social history has always fascinated me. As collectors we embrace it. Collecting things we maybe had once as kids, re-living our ‘sunny’ past childhoods, or obtaining something that, way back when, we were never allowed to have, or was just not affordable to our parents. Things that shaped our lives and those around us, gave us a perspective, real or fantasy, or both.
My fascination has always been for the miniature, be it dolls or dolls houses. Being able to own a whole wardrobe of fashionable or glamorous clothes replicated in beautiful detail to dress a beautiful ’muse’ with a ’Real Personality’ (said the Sindy brochures at the time), or a whole house full of period furniture and decoration, that never gets messy or untidy, a utopia of calm, order and style. All these things tell a history of the time they were made and released, the styles, fashions and fads of days gone by, or if you collect present ‘toys’ of right now, to be looked back on in years to come by youngsters as three dimensional, touchy-feely ‘history books’.
Me varnishing the stairs of 12 Worthington Road.
Most importantly to me is the enjoyment of my hobby, well, passion really. But being one of those annoying people that can’t just collect, or ‘play’ with my spoils, I always, due to my curious mind, delve deeper into all I do, with great interest in the why’s and wherefores, and also with a great love and interest for psychology, which plays a big part in any collector’s life as well I think.
This piece has really come about after some bedtime reading I did recently, flicking through a brilliant Laura Ashley book on design, from country house, to cottage/rural, to romantic and period…all styles had their day, and are all still hugely popular …. and what suddenly struck me more than anything was the two biggest periods of change in decoration and housing in English history, both after world wars! .. Once you’ve thought about it a bit, if you hadn’t already, it’s simple to analyse really … For instance after the First World War servants were hard to find, people finding that jobs in factories paid more and were less hours …. It was the birth of the housewife, doing all the tasks once asked of the staff, now being done solely by one person, and this in turn brought forward new inventions to make that job as quick, effortless and pleasant as possible, and along with this new age came smaller, easier to maintain homes.
12 Worthington Road in the present day.
The vintage 1930s house bought on ebay that I'm renovating as 12 Worthington Road.
12 Worthington Road, the dolls house, is based on a house that Mr and Mrs Stimpson (my grandparents) moved into when they got married in 1928, in the ‘small’ town of Dunstable in Bedfordshire. Neither a large village, nor a bustling metropolis, Dunstable was one of those ‘old fashioned’ homely towns, neat and tidy, and safe and friendly and surrounded by countryside, perfect. And the house embraces all that was modern at that time. Of course to us it represents a quaint old house with its original features, so cute and homely. But to John and Iris Stimpson this was an ultra modern brand new freshly built home, and how excited and proud they must have been to move into it from new, with all mod cons.
The hall and stairs looking in from the porch, during renovation.
John and Iris were a fashionable young couple, and after growing up with Edwardian parents and Victorian grandparents, embraced the ’Brand New World’ of the 1920 with ladies’ hemlines now only reaching the knees, and legs actually on show! … ragtime and jazz records being played on gramophones while youngsters learnt new dance crazes where they danced a lot of the time in front of each other rather than in each other's arms, waving their arms around and making almost comical movements - it was shocking to their elders, but wonderful, liberating and exciting to John and Iris. Although we wouldn’t witness the birth of the ‘Teenager’ until the 1950s/60s, they, in a sense, were the seed that sparked off a whole shift in young people, a rebellion of the old, and an all-embracing love of the new.
Iris was her own woman, very strong-minded, she knew what she liked and wanted, and would not settle for anything less. I don’t believe that even the strongest matriarch could have kept her under control once she had decided on something, and although she had much respect for everyone, she was not to be messed with. She told me once of the first time she had her hair cut, it was long, waist length, which her mother would lovingly brush, but along came chin length fashionable bobs, and she was young and loved all things fashionable and stylish, so she went out one day without saying a word and got her waist length hair shorn into a chin length bob. Not only must that have felt so liberating for her mentally, but also ‘physically’….. all that weight gone, literally a ‘weight off her shoulders‘, and all that time saved washing and brushing ……. Iris and her hair had entered the roaring twenties, and talking of roaring, that’s just about what my great-grandmother did when Iris got home that day! (That's Iris in her 21st birthday portrait, with her bobbed hair!)
John opted for the latest style in trousers, Oxford Bags, big baggy trousers with turn up, always wore a hat, and had a selection of fashionable suits with waistcoats, and a trendy Macintosh, like the American detectives in the movies. It was unthinkable to even consider that he would go anywhere, even downstairs when he got up in the mornings, without a shirt and tie. They were known and talked about as ‘The smartest couple in Dunstable”.And so here they were in their new home. Built to meet the standards and needs of the modern young couple. They both worked, John for a local engineering company, often travelling around the country and to Europe, and would bring Nan fashions home from France. Iris worked at a milliners' making straw hats, something Luton was famous for, they lived just five miles from there; she then she moved to Waterlows, printing bank notes for the Royal mint.
Side view during renovations.
As a modern young working couple they needed a home that was easy to look after, clean, with large enough rooms to take all the furniture they required for comfortable living, but not so big that it would be a drudgery to look after. Number 12 was perfect, built of its time and for such a couple. It had a ‘fully fitted’ indoor bathroom upstairs, with claw-foot bath, wall-mounted basin and high level flush toilet! All the principle rooms had fireplaces and the coal hole was opposite the back door, sheltered in the back porch so coal could be got for the fires without getting wet in bad weather, very convenient.
The small mesh window at the back of the larder - the mesh is from a desk pen holder that my clever hubby brought back from work because someone had trodden on it and thrown it away!
The kitchen was small and easy to keep clean, walls painted in gloss from top to bottom, a fitted larder with fly screen window for ventilation acted as the cool storage for perishables, bought on a daily basis, and the very latest in kitchen furniture, the all purpose kitchen cabinet graced one wall, with its glossy white body, glossy green doors and drop-down enamelled tin counter top for food preparation.
A kitchen cabinet made from a Jane Harrop kit, customised to get it almost identical to Nan's. Her cabinet was this colour green, on all the doors, and the frame was white.
The flooring throughout the house was oil cloth, a woven flax-based material coated in a glossy, often patterned finish, making it hard wearing and very easy to keep clean, dotted with fashionable rugs in each room.
Dining room decoration complete. This oil cloth was in the dolls house when I bought it.
And to help Iris keep all this clean was her state of the art vacuum cleaner, torpedo shaped, the main barrel being coated in a sort of green leatherette, with the domed ends in highly polished and fashionable chrome, as were all the other parts of the vacuum cleaner, the cleaning heads being crafted in wood and real bristle. Chrome sledge-like ’gliders’ made it easy to slide around the house with effortless ease. A work of art and an appliance that she used from those early days of her marriage right through until about ten years or so before her death at the age of 89. Not that it gave up on her, because they made things to last way back when, in fact I inherited it and used after her death, still in the original cardboard box it was packaged in. No, she just needed something a ‘bit lighter’ to carry up and down the stairs, so opted for a modern plastic upright vacuum. Her original vacuum would probably be today’s equivalent of the most up to date, expensive Dyson you could buy.
Left: Nan's real dressing table and ottoman, painted white and reupholstered, now in Mum's guest room. Right: Finished curtains and pelmet for Nan's bedroom.
The furnishings varied, but were all the height of fashion at the time. Their bedroom was furnished with a brand new Art Deco bedroom suite comprising of matching bed, wardrobe, dressing table and tallboy.
Left: Lloyd Loom bedroom set, the detail is amazing! woven rug from Dolls House Emporium, real original photograph of Nan and Grandad on their wedding day. Right: Nan's real wardrobe and tallboy, plus her Lloyd Loom chair.
The guest room (my bedroom) was Arts and Crafts, solid well-made furniture with ‘Tudor’ influences. The chairs in the guest room were put either side of the big high old fashioned bed, with their backs to the bed, to stop me falling out and having a long drop until I reached the floor!
Left: My bedroom curtains and pelmet, details of lining and pleating. Right: Chairs won on ebay. I took the tacky cheapo 'silk' seats off and cut up an old vintage purse to get an effect closer to Nan's chairs.
The box room was never furnished as a bedroom, but used solely for storing all things needed around the home from time to time, or daily, just like the box rooms of previous times were used for storing hats and trunks etc.
The box room renovated, with original oil cloth used from another room. The wallpaper border is from Poppet,
The kitchen’s modern lines were softened with a taste of ‘rural idealism’ with the addition of a long shelf above the kitchen cabinet, supported by ornate iron brackets, and displaying a large willow pattern style dinner service complete with oval serving platters, tureens and gravy boat.
Nan's chair was a lovely sunny yellow, splattered with bits of paint, the original yellow paint being worn off where it had been knocked or rubbed against the wall outside when cleaning the windows etc. Here it is in the front room, she's obviously started to do some decorating in there! The chimney breast and the fitted cupboards are going in.
The ‘Front Room’ of 12 Worthington Road was for watching the TV, just the three channels, in black and white. Programs were ‘mapped’ out from the TV and Radio Times, or the newspaper. In the winter, the fire was prepared in the morning and lit half an hour or so before the program/s started, and we’d enter just before, to crackling, the smell of coal smoke as flames lick their way around those shiny, almost jewel-like lumps of precious coal – heaven! Program/s watched, it was back into the dining room. The only other time we used the ‘Front Room’ was if visitors called.
The rest of the time was spent in the dining room at the back of the house. Slightly smaller than the front room, it had a corner fireplace with a shiny metal gas fire, robust oak matching dining furniture and sideboard, two arm chairs covered in flowery loose covers with frilled valances, a large radio, two pictures of what looked like Scottish Highlands, watercolours, a cuckoo clock and a fold up, green-based top card table, which slid down the side of the radio in the corner.
Folding card table, made from another kit by Jane Harrop.
The radio was the size of two of today’s washing machines at least, and housed a TV set under its lid, mirrored into the lid, but no longer working, although the radio was, and sounded wonderful, deep and rich, Sundays was always The Archers.
Similar radio to the one that was in the dining room, although Nan's was a darker wood.
On the sideboard were an array of beautiful things - the Wedgwood, dark blue with raised pure white figures that fascinated me they were so tiny and so delicate, and stood out so boldly against the deep matte blue of the vase, biscuit barrel and fruit bowl ...
Nan's Wedgewood, bought from Dolls House Emporium
.... also my Mum’s 21st birthday portrait, taken in black and white and placed in a grey and black ‘striped’ thin frame, in a matching frame was my parents’ wedding photo, also in black and white, and in-between them were me and my sister’s school photos in their fold-out brown card frames. In the middle of the sideboard sat a silver coffee service, very elegant, I loved that as well. The cruet set was also placed here, in filigree silver with jewel-like dark blue glass liners.
Left: Nan's real silver coffee service. Right: vintage ca 1930s doll's house Jacobean glassware, made in Czechoslovakia.
The Stimpsons bought for the future, choosing every item very carefully, for its function, its beauty and to hopefully stand the test of time, and they chose well, for most of those things did just that and the house hardly changed during their life there. In a sense it was, looking back, a living museum of social history that worked just as well when I was a kid as when they first set it all up 30-odd years before I was born. And maybe, just maybe, that’s where the seeds of love I have for social history started.