Dolls' Houses Past & Present

A website and ezine about dolls' houses: antique, vintage and modern. Plus furniture and accessories.

Try on Rooms as you would try on Hats by Rebecca Green

Many dolls house collectors are familiar with the history of dolls houses - created both for adult amusement and display of wealth, and as toys for young girls to play with (while learning homemaking skills at the same time). Probably less well known is the mid-twentieth century use of miniature furniture in dolls houses or room settings to teach home-planning skills to adults, and to enable adults to experiment with new interior design schemes before making big purchases.


Sunday Times, Perth WA 19 Jan 1930. NLA Digitised Newspapers  


The earliest example I’ve found of this is from 1930, when a writer in the Sunday Times of Perth, Western Australia, quoted “a well known interior designer” who suggested that home decorators plan new schemes of decoration in miniature, before buying all the paints and fabrics needed for the real thing. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this article was reprinted from another, quite possibly overseas, newspaper.) The home decorator could take a large wooden or cardboard box to serve as the room, and mark windows, fireplace etc in their appropriate positions. Then, the walls could be painted with the proposed colours, and “various dado and frieze treatments tried out.” “Ordinary doll-house furniture will do for covering with your new upholstering materials, the great thing being to get a true idea of the effect the shades will have upon each other.”


Pittsburgh Post Gazette, October 17 1939. Google Newspapers.


“Trying on rooms as you would try on hats” was a gimmick developed in 1939 by interior designer Clara Dudley, of Alexander Smith & Sons Carpet Company. The Colorama display at the Rockefeller Home Centre, on Fifth Avenue, New York  (a permanent display of the latest ideas in equipment and furnishings for the home), featured 5 different miniature furnished rooms. A system of mirrors reduced the viewer to 1/8th normal size, and projected his or (more usually) her image into the middle of the rooms, which were designed to flatter different hair colours – “blonde, brunette, brown-hair, silver-gray and titian”. The rooms apparently went on tour throughout the US – I wonder how many carpets were sold?


As well as being used to market furnishings, and try out ideas for redecorating, miniature rooms and houses were enlisted to educate those who would be setting up new homes, including ex-service women and young couples establishing themselves in the post-war years.


Two rooms constructed in 1939 by students in home economics classes in South Carolina, USA, where home planning was studied through model houses. Ashwood Plantations, South Carolina. Photographer: Marion Post Wolcott. From the Library of Congress pictures database, 



In 1944 in Queensland, Australia, Army servicewomen were undertaking homemakers’ courses developed by the State Department of Public Instruction. In one Army Women’s Service unit, budding home designers made miniature interiors from three-ply, and fitted them out with miniature furniture which they also made themselves.



Australian Air and Sea Rangers  in 1947, with the model house which they built and furnished as part of their training. The Sydney Morning Herald 22 Nov 1947. NLA Digitised Newspapers.


In England in 1948, Mr Frank A. Austin of the Council of Industrial Design, London, devised a scheme to help people decide what furniture they would need. “They can ask themselves how many people will want to use a particular room, what they will want to use it for, how many may want to sit down at a time, what kind of lighting they will need. Then they can move the models around until the problems are solved.”

 British Council of Industrial Design students learning to solve furniture problems with models. The Daily Mirror 4 March 1948.


Click here to see a video of a couple visiting the Council of Industrial Design for advice.

Mr Austin offered his scheme to furniture stores, schools and women’s organisations, and foresaw that young couples would be able to go into a store and plan their home in miniature before spending any money. Does anyone remember this scheme, or has anyone come across any of his model furniture sets?


In America again, also in 1948, two women try out furniture and colour schemes in an “outsize” doll’s house in a store.The Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 April 1948 p 37. NLA Digitised Newspapers.


The use of miniature furnishings to try out furnishing schemes is of course similar to using salesman’s samples to promote sales of full-scale products. In some cases, such as the furniture shown in the American store in 1948 (above), or the kitchen developed by Barnes and Reinecke of Chicago in 1946 (below), the miniature pieces used in these settings were in fact models of the full scale pieces on sale.


Above, from article in MoMA Design Store Fall Preview 2010 magazine; below, from Popular Mechanics Apr 1946 article Designs for "Better Living". Shared by Megan Hornbecker on Modern Mini Houses,




Other schemes used more generic models or impressionistic representations of furnishings, and were not intended to promote the sale of particular lines of furniture, but rather to develop ideas about arranging rooms and coordinating colours. 


"home planning goes on forever …” says this beer ad in the magazine LIFE on 23 Jan 1950 


Several kits for planning home furnishings were widely marketed in the US during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. One was the Plan-It-Kit, developed by interior designer Adele E Behar, of Westport Connecticut. This consisted of 57 pieces of white polystyrene model furnishings in 1/24th scale, with a grid and walls to assist in laying out rooms. 

Plan-It-Kit, uncut polystyrene pieces. Photos: Rebecca Green

The instruction booklet (above and below) suggested that the models could be painted or upholstered, to give a more realistic idea of the layout:



The Hoyt Rust Scale Model Home Kit (1953) was one of several model house kits designed to enable new homeowners to decide on the size and architectural style they wanted. Many concentrated on the exterior design of the house – the ads for the Hoyt Rust kit also mention die-cut furniture and fixtures, as well as paint in 12 colours to help customers decide on colour schemes.


Popular Science magazine, March 1953 and December 1953



Paul MacAlister focused on interior design with his Plan-a-Room kit:

Photos: Rebecca Green



I much prefer this to the Plan-It-Kit, as the model wooden furnishings smell wonderful!


Photo: Rebecca Green

The pieces are carved as generic shapes, which remind me of Creative Playthings doll house furnishings:

 Like the Plan-It-Kit pieces, it was suggested that these wooden Plan-a-Room pieces could be painted, and examples are show in the instruction booklet:



 Paul MacAlister (left, from ebay seller decoray) also appeared on television, and for those appearances he crafted beautifully designed and finished pieces. I have not found any video clips of his TV appearances, but his model rooms and miniature furnishings have survived. Here are some of the rooms:


Plan-a-Room images (above and below) from, shared by Megan Hornbecker on

Some of the furnishings Paul MacAlister created for his rooms were auctioned on ebay recently. I was lucky enough to win some 1/24th scale pieces:

Photo: Rebecca Green

They are beautifully made - the undersides as well as the tops. The 'upholstery' is painted on to the wood.


Some 1/12th scale pieces were also auctioned - there was fierce competition for these!
They were also exquisitely made, with the fabric designs painted on to the wood.

Photos (left and below) by ebay seller decoray, shared by Megan Hornbecker on






                                                 Photo: Christine Ferrara (Call of the Small)



The 1960s saw the focus on interior design flowing back into children’s dolls houses, with the well-known Irwin Interior Decorator Set, marketed to girls and their mothers.

Irwin Interior Decorator Set Box      Photo: Anna-Maria C Sviatko 



The wall panels are reversible, different chair bases can be chosen and clipped to the chair seat, and platforms and steps were included to create split-level designs.

Irwin Interior Decorator Set Instruction Booklet (above) and Living Room (below)      Photos: Anna-Maria C Sviatko  



Miner’s Rooms-in-miniature, made in Japan, was a similar product, labelled as both “Doll house … Interior Decorator’s Model”. It also has reversible wall panels. As the name suggests, Miner's Rooms were sold as individual rooms, rather than as a whole house.


Above: Miner Rooms-in-miniature box; below: detail of Miner living room erected. Photos: Christine Ferrara (Call of the Small)



While in earlier periods, dolls houses had been promoted for teaching young girls the housekeeping skills of cooking, cleaning, washing and caring for children, these dolls houses helped girls develop a sense of design, and grow up to become good consumers of current fashions in home furnishings!


 More miniatures for teaching design - don't you love the colour scheme?! Judith Martin puts a chair into the model house she designed and made as part of her General Design diploma at East Sydney Technical College in 1954. “The grey painted house has three bedrooms, dining-room, kitchen, living room, dressing room, bathroom and laundry. The miniature furniture is made of balsa wood and the carpets are velveteen and velvet in shades of grey. Sandpaper is used to represent cork". The Sydney Morning Herald 9 Dec 1954. NLA Digitised Newspapers.


Architects, of course, have also made scale models of their designs, and as Wes Christensen explains in his profile in this issue, it was this that led him into designing dolls houses. Some architects also furnished the rooms of their models, though I’m not sure how many went as far as Australian architect Neville Gruzman:

The Australian Women’s Weekly 12 April 1967

“These models reduce the chance element in building. …. You get every view from the model that you get from the building itself,” he said, at the same time lifting the roof off a doll’s-house –size lounge, complete with tiny pictures on the walls, table and chairs, and a gay carpet on the floor. There were even ashes in the fireplace. “We burn the fire to see where the smoke goes.”  


I'd love to hear if any of you have any of these models - or others I don't know of.  I find them fascinating - and of course, as they were intended to represent contemporary interior furnishings and design, they can give a different picture of the real-life homes of the era, from the houses created as children's playthings.

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