Dolls' Houses Past & Present

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A Penny for a Dolls House by Rebecca Green

I remember reading Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Match Girl when I was a child, and crying over the ending, when the little girl is reunited with her dead grandmother, who had loved her. As befits a fairy tale, the ending softens the reality of the Little Match Girl’s life: she had spent the whole of a wintry New Year’s Eve on the street, unsuccessfully trying to sell matches. She was barefoot in the snow, because the slippers she’d been wearing were too big for her, and fell off as she ran to avoid carriages. She was afraid to return home to her father without having made any money, and so froze to death.


Left: 1849 illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen for Andersen's Little Match Girl. (Source: International Cognition and Culture Institute blog). Right: my mother received Our Mutual Friend for Christmas at the age of 11, and covered it with 1940s wrapping paper.


When I was somewhat older, I also encountered Miss Jenny Wren, one of the characters in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. She was a doll’s dressmaker and manufacturer of ornamental pincushions and pen-wipers. She spent her days working too, but had the advantage over the little match girl in being indoors, working at a bench set before her arm chair. When asked, “I hope it’s a good business?”, she “shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. “No. Poorly paid. And I’m often so pressed for time! I had a doll married, last week, and was obliged to work all night. And it’s not good for me, on account of my back being so bad and my legs so queer.”


Jenny Wren at her work bench, drawn by Sol Eytinge, Jr., for The Illustrated Household Edition. Boston: Lee & Shepard; New York: Charles T. Dillingham, 1870.



Dickens wrote about another doll’s dressmaker, too – Bertha, the blind daughter of toymaker Caleb Plummer in The Cricket on the Hearth. Caleb made many types of toys, including dolls houses. He was “a little, meagre, thoughtful, dingy-faced man, who seemed to have made himself a great-coat from the sack-cloth covering of some old box; for, when he turned to shut the door, and keep the weather out, he disclosed upon the back of that garment, the inscription G & T in large black capitals. Also the word GLASS in bold characters.”

“Caleb and his daughter were at work together in their usual working-room, which served them for their ordinary living-room as well; and a strange place it was. There were houses in it, finished and unfinished, for Dolls of all stations in life. Suburban tenements for Dolls of moderate means; kitchens and single apartments for Dolls of the lower classes; capital town residences for Dolls of high estate. Some of these establishments were already furnished according to estimate, with a view to the convenience of Dolls of limited income; others could be fitted on the most expensive scale, at a moment’s notice, from whole shelves of chairs and tables, sofas, bedsteads, and upholstery. ….

There were various other samples of his handicraft, besides Dolls, in Caleb Plummer’s room. There were Noah’s Arks, in which the Birds and Beasts were an uncommonly tight fit, I assure you; though they could be crammed in, anyhow, at the roof, and rattled and shaken into the smallest compass. By a bold poetical licence, most of these Noah’s Arks had knockers on the doors; inconsistent appendages, perhaps, as suggestive of morning callers and a Postman, yet a pleasant finish to the outside of the building. ….

In the midst of all these objects, Caleb and his daughter sat at work. The Blind Girl busy as a Doll’s dressmaker; Caleb painting and glazing the four-pair front of a desirable family mansion. …..

‘There we are,’ said Caleb, falling back a pace or two to form the better judgment of his work; ‘as near the real thing as sixpenn’orth of halfpence is to sixpence. What a pity that the whole front of the house opens at once! If there was only a staircase in it, now, and regular doors to the rooms to go in at! But that’s the worst of my calling, I’m always deluding myself, and swindling myself.’ “


Caleb at Work, wood engraving by John Leech, 1845 for Dickens's The Cricket on the Hearth: Chirp the Second  (Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham.)


Andersen and Dickens may have used their imagination in depicting their characters (Caleb makes an amazing variety of toys for one man with very little equipment), but their authors surely knew of their real-life counterparts.

I was delighted to find a non-fiction account from the mid-nineteenth century, of a maker of dolls houses for dolls of moderate means or of the lower classes. In 1866, the writer James Greenwood, a British social explorer, journalist and writer, accompanied a rent collector on his rounds through the south London suburb of Bermondsey. He described this experience in an article called ‘The Depths of Poverty – a London Exploration’, which was published in The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine in February 1866.  Greenwood and the rent collector went to Orchard Place, somewhere off Tooley Street, an eight foot wide passage on which stood a double row of 30 houses with 10 rooms each. From the cellars to the attics, each room had its own lodgers (who were given pseudonyms in the article).


In the back parlour of the ground floor of Number 5, they found “a tidy though wretchedly poor little room, the most bulky article of furniture being a great bundle in a coloured quilt in a corner, and very like a bed. At a table by a handful of fire sit two little girls, amusing themselves, as at first glance appears, by playing at dolls’ house making, for on the table are several pasteboard structures big enough for a doll to live in; and the two little girls, aged about nine and six respectively, are very busy over them. It is only during as long a time as a first glance occupies in delivery that the delusion lasts, for you have but to take a step into the room to see that the dolls’ houses on the table are some of them in an unfinished condition – this one lacking windows, and that one being unpainted and without a door; that, besides the houses finished and unfinished, there were strewing the table various building materials, including two gallipots with red and green paint in them, and sundry tiny bits of glass; that there was a glue-pot on the hob; in short, that the two young people were dolls’ house builders by trade, and particularly hard at it. There was the voice of a crying baby sounding as plain as though on the table and inhabiting one of the pasteboard houses; but since that was impossible, and no baby elsewhere visible, it was clear that the little squaller must be in the adjoining chamber.


 “Mother out?” inquired Mr. Collector, walking straight to the mantelpiece, as though quite confident of finding something that concerned him, and proving that his confidence was not misplaced by producing therefrom eighteenpence and a rent-book.


“Yes, sir,” answered the senior builder with an old-womanly sigh, “she ain’t been home to dinner. There’s no luck for her today, or she’d ha’ been back before this.”


These penny toy sellers are from the early 20th century. They were selling, among other things, Britains’ metal pots and pans, which found their way into many dolls houses. (‘The People’s Toy Market, Ludgate Hill’, Black & White magazine, December 15 1906.) 



“Mother goes out to sell while the young ‘uns stay at home and make,” explained Mr. Collector briefly; “cheap at a penny, ain’t they?”

“We don’t make ‘em all, sir,” said the older builder; “mother shapes ‘em, and we paint ‘em and put in the winders while she takes out the finished ones.”

“And where does she take them to sell them?”

“Nowhere particular; anywhere where there’s people marketing and that. Close home here sometimes, sometimes to Lambeth Walk or the New Cut. She’s gone to the Cut today. I wish she’d come home; she ought to by this time. She only took out ten what was left over from Saturday night. She’d be home sharp enough if she knew how baby’s been crying.”

“Whose baby?”

“Our baby. She has dropped her sugar-tit, I think, or p’raps it’s a pin. Would you mind just lifting her down, sir, for a minute while I see?”

This last observation was addressed to Mr. Collector, who, of course, had the advantage of me in being on terms of intimacy with the family. As she spoke, to my astonishment she raised her eyes to a high shelf atop of a cupboard. Mounting on a chair, Mr. Collector obligingly complied, and easily enough with one hand hauled down to the senior house-builder a common box such as raisins are packed in (indeed, the word “Malaga” was printed at the end of it), and in the plum-box, snugly lying on a pillow and covered with a bit of blanket, was the baby whose squalling had so puzzled me – a poor little wizen-faced creature with hungry eyes, sucking determinedly at a scrap of rag, which, to prevent its being sucked clean down the lean little throat, was secured to baby’s wrist by a bit of tape. This was the “sugar-tit,” it seemed.


Magic lantern Slide 7 of a set depicting scenes from The cricket on the hearth: or, the household fairy (York & Son, 1890). (The Magic Lantern Web Resource Lucerna has clearer images of another set of these slides here.)



“That’s what it is, bless its little heart! it’s been and sucked it’s sugar tit dry, a dear.” and the senior builder affectionately and compassionately kissed the little thing, a favour the little thing acknowledged by snapping round at the lips of her sister with a cannibal expression in its eyes shocking to see.

“So hungry, is it?” and disengaging the tiny bag from its wrist, she took it to the cupboard, and putting a pinch of sugar in it, readjusted it, and giving baby a tuck in and another kiss, civilly begged Mr. Collector that he would put it back again.

“Mother would be in a way if she thought I had had it down,” observed the senior builder, sitting down again to the table and going in for glazing at a tremendous rate. “Poke the fire and put the kettle on, Liz; p’raps we might want it when mother comes home.”

“How long has she been out?” I inquired.

“Since nine, sir. It’s always worse for her this cold weather, ‘cause people cut along to keep themselves warm, and won’t stop to buy anything anybody is standing in the streets to sell.”


The Little Match Girl dodges carriages. Illustration by Hans Tegner for Fairy tales and stories, New York: The Century Co, 1900,_Tegner%29.png



“Mother will be home presently, I’ll be bound,” remarked Mr. Collector encouragingly. “Just fancy!” continued he as we came out, shutting the door, “out since nine, and now it’s after two, and if she sells out, it’s tenpence, and the cardboard and stuff to pay for out of that! Hard lines, eh?”

“Hard indeed. Has she no husband?”

“Died before the young ‘un was born. Drunken chap he was. Fancy box maker. I suppose that’s how she came to think of dolls’ houses.”

“But surely she could find some more profitable employment. She’d better have gone out washing, one would have thought.”

“I expect there isn’t much call for lame women in that line,” replied Mr. Collector. “You didn’t know she was lame! Got a club foot I think. Anyhow she walks with a crutch.”


Having gone up to the first and second floors, and the attic, the author and the rent collector were coming down again,

“when, as we descended the stairs and regained the passage, we were aware of the back parlour door being open, and, proceeding from within, of the sounds of a woman’s voice fussing over a baby. With the familiarity of old acquaintance Mr. Collector looked in, at the same time putting a hand behind him, and plucking me by the coat-tail to do likewise.

“Got back, then, Mrs. Chidley? How’s trade?”

Mrs. Chidley, in her hurry to get at the famished inhabitant of the raisin-box, had not as yet divested herself of her bonnet, which was of black crape, set round with a widow’s cap on its inner side; and as she sat comforting the little squaller, looking down on it so lovingly with her pale face all pinched and blue by the biting wind which she had so recently come out of, and with her lame foot (which no doubt was the coldest) with the lengthening iron to it resting on the fender-bar, she presented a rather uncommon picture. As to the state of trade, Mr. Collector might have spared her that question had he made use of his eyes, for there on the table by the side of the empty raisin-box were three doll-houses, tied together by their chimney-pots by a bit of twine, and evidently unsold stock.


Magic Lantern Slide 8 of a set depicting scenes from The cricket on the hearth: or, the household fairy (York & Son, 1890)



“Thanky, sir,” replied Mrs. Chidley to Mr. Collector’s question, “trade isn’t bright. It never is bright in this sort o’ line a month after Christmas. But, lor! seven out of ten isn’t so bad, and so long as we can get a bit of victuals we won’t grumble. Get the saucepan, Carry.”

This last observation was addressed to the senior builder, who, along with her sister, was busy at one end of the table transferring from a cloth to a dish certain tags and flinders of flesh of a very horrible-looking sort, the whole forming a red mass from out of which cropped the hairy tips and the gory severed parts of the ears of oxen and calves. This, however, was the “bit of victuals” alluded to by the lame woman, because when she said, “Get the saucepan, Carry,” the senior builder replied- 

“You won’t have it all biled, will you, mother? Here’s some jolly big bits what’ll do for frying.”

And as she spoke she held up between her finger and thumb two or three rags of flesh an inch and a-half long, maybe, and half-an-inch wide.

Now it was my turn to pluck Mr. Collector by the coat, and in so unmistakable a manner that he bade Mrs. Chidley good afternoon and came out at once.

“Good heavens! surely they are not going to eat that dreadful-looking meat?”

“To be sure they are,” replied Mr. Collector, “and a jolly stew it makes, I’ll wager. Rather coarse and full-flavoured, p’r’aps, but not to be sneezed at after five hours’ standing in the cold.”

“But where are they able to purchase such offal? Surely no butcher can be found who deals in it for human food?”

“It isn’t bought at the butcher’s at all, my dear sir, it’s bought in the market – in the skin market – just round the corner here. It’s called ‘bits and ears’, I believe, and there’s a rare lot of it for twopence. All that you saw didn’t cost more, I should say.”

(There we will leave the author of this article, as we don’t need to follow him on his visit to the skin market to observe how the ‘bits and ears’ were removed from the hides.)



Ten years before Greenwood visited the “Chidleys”, the Ladies Guild had taught girls of the Ragged Schools how to make dolls house furniture. Ladies’ Guild furniture was bought by the upper classes, at venues like Lord Shaftesbury’s mansion, and some has survived.

It would be wonderful if any of “Mrs Chidley” and her daughters’ dolls houses have survived, but because they were made of cardboard (even cardboard strong enough to hold glass windows), they would have been far more fragile than dolls houses made solidly of wood.  These cardboard houses cost only a penny, and could easily be replaced when they wore out – they were probably not bought by families “where children were given their own part of the house with space enough for their toys to remain undisturbed until the next generation came to take possession” (as Vivien Greene wrote in her introduction to The Dolls’ House*).

I do have a little cardboard house, in the form of a box. It may have been sold as a seaside souvenir. It looks hand-made, with linen strips glued on to form the hinge of the lid, shells placed neatly in the putty or glue on the roof-lid – and some strips of newsprint used to reinforce the roof under the putty. This little house probably dates to the late 19th or early 20th century, some decades later than "Mrs Chidley’s" houses, and is of simpler construction, too – its windows are printed, rather than glazed.



Rose Cottage shell box. Photos © Rebecca Green



Hitchin Museum and Art Gallery has a 19th century cardboard dolls house, from ca 1880. It is 8” (20cms) wide, and, according to curator David Hodges, “made entirely from scraps such as cardboard, cotton wool, matchsticks and foil. The level of detail is absolutely incredible and the amount of work that must have gone in to it is astonishing. It’s even made so that the first floor and roof are detachable so all the rooms are made to the same detail. There’s even a wisp of cotton wool smoke coming out of the chimney.” 

19th century cardboard dolls house. Photos © Hitchin Museum and Art Gallery



This dolls house was probably made at home – houses with removable roofs and first floors would have been difficult for someone like “Mrs Chidley” to carry tied together by their chimneys! Many periodicals and newspapers carried instructions for making dolls houses and their furnishings from cardboard, in the form of boxes, postcards, etc.

Not many years after the journalist’s visit to "Mrs Chidley" and her daughters, girls like “Carry” (aged about 9) and “Liz” (aged about 6) could no longer have spent all day working to make a living - universal education was introduced in England and Wales in 1870, and then in 1880 made compulsory for children up to the age of 12. Possibly they would have continued to work after school hours, though.

Another journalist, Mary Spencer Warren, writing about ‘Toys and their Makers’ in The Quiver in 1898, visited a dolls house maker (frustratingly not named!), and found “men, boys, and girls, all doing different parts, which would presently be put together by the finishers and fitters, and would sell ultimately at any price from one shilling up to fifty pounds or more.” This is clearly a much bigger operation than the single room working and living space of Mrs Chidley, Caleb Plummer, etc. Presumably, the boys and girls employed in this workshop were aged over 12.


The dolls house workshop, making dolls houses for English and foreign markets, to sell for prices from 1 shilling to £50 or more. Photo by Mary Spencer Warren, The Quiver, issue 615, January 1898, page 237.


This writer also visited many toy makers who “do the work in their own homes, these homes generally consisting of one room in which toy-making, sleeping, and living are combined”. We don’t get a clear picture of who was involved in the work, because, as the writer explains, “Not very well knowing the manner and customs of the trade, I visited some of these homes on a Monday, but in no single instance did I find any work going on.” “I am told that these men can make from 15s. to 18s. per week if they like to work, but numbers of them don’t like, a very small percentage only commencing on the Monday, others making Tuesday their first day; while some do not even start until the Wednesday: then it is all hurry to get it into the warehouse on Friday afternoon.” 


In one room, she did find two children: “on the floor in the centre of the room were seated two unwashed children amiably playing five-stones. Father was out and mother was out, and they didn’t know when they would be at home, was the sum and substance of what I could gather. It seems that the four of them (in this case the family was small) lived in this one room, which was almost devoid of what we should consider the “necessities of life.” On a bench in front of the window were some small piles of wood, in readiness for the cheap carts which were to be made during the week.

When I asked “if father had cut them today,” I was told” “No, last week, ‘cos mother wanted to take the saw to uncle’s.” “Sometimes we build with ‘em,” one of the children volunteered, “but that’s when father ain’t here; if he ketches us, he wallops us.”


“I visited another old couple, who had lived and worked in one top room for twenty-two years. They made little ships, and seemed to be in fairly constant employment; their combined efforts turned out twelve per week, except when rheumatics interfered.”  Photo by Mary Spencer Warren, The Quiver, issue 615, January 1898, page 238.


Penny toy sellers with (above) fighting cocks (and that looks like a sewing machine at the front of the tray, on the right?), and (below) swings and cups and balls (‘The People’s Toy Market, Ludgate Hill’, Black & White magazine, December 15 1906.)



Dickens’ account of toymakers building houses for dolls of all stations in life is confirmed by these two journalists, reporting 30 years apart. Clearly, in the early, mid and late Victorian periods, dolls houses were made for sale to people of widely varying incomes – as Dickens says, for the lower classes, those of moderate means, and those of high estate. The exception were those living in “the depths of poverty”, like the “Chidley” family, who needed to make and sell two of their dolls houses just in order to afford one meal of ‘bits and ears’. We may not find any examples of their penny dolls houses, but thanks to these authors, we know that they existed.



*'The Dolls' House in Scotland 1800 to the Present Day', introduction by Vivien Greene to The Dolls' House, the catalogue of the Save the Children Fund exhibition of dolls' houses in Scotland (1697-1982), published by Academy Editions, London 1982.

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