Dolls' Houses Past & Present

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How technology arrived in the dolls house - as quickly as in the grown-up world by diePuppenstubensammlerin


The beginning

Girls and technology? The history of toys shows that originally, girls were expected to understand technology only in so far as it was important for carrying out household duties. In dolls bathrooms and dolls kitchens made of tin, the use of fire and water could be diligently practised from early on. In the classical dolls house made of wood, however, these experiments were ruled out. The small parlours, master bedrooms and boudoirs were thus equipped only with wooden and tin furniture, and the future small housewives demonstrated their ability to handle needle and thread, with which they cosily decorated the rooms. Technology first moved in here with the introduction of electricity at the end of the 19th century. By 1891, at the International Electrotechnical Exhibition held in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, electric lamps for dolls houses were already shown, and until the outbreak of the First World War, lights became normal in toy shops, toy pharmacies, dolls theatres, toy stables and stations for model railways. Everything which happened in large scale architecture was expected to be replicated in miniature, so for boys there were arc lamps, street and car lamps, and for girls, standard, wall, table and ceiling lamps. The lampshades were made of various materials – resin, silk fabric, bead fringes, glass, porcelain, celluloid or paper. From the beginning, the miniature lights corresponded to real lighting fixtures to the smallest details, and lent the toys an “astonishing naturalness”.


Interior of a Gottschalk house with a working electrified lift, in the collection of Jörg Bohn.


Between the two World Wars, electrification was more widely promoted, so that in 1928, a toy journal could assert that a dolls house would not please children if it could not be lit up, because children wanted to have the achievements of technology in their realm, too. At the beginning of the thirties, every electrical shop carried dolls house lamps in their range.


1933 Märklin catalogue image of tin litho bathroom with water reservoirs feeding the bath, basin, shower and toilet, and lit by a central electric light (20 volt bulb, .15 Amp).


 1930s roombox, back wall with light over door and switches by door.



The Fifties

Initially, the pre-war gains were continued. A promotional photo from 1950 advertises a multi-storey dolls house boasting an electrical lift and lighting.

Above, exterior, and below, interior of "Heschi" dolls house with electrical lighting and lift, by Max Wurl, Berlin, 1950, as shown in Das Spielzeug (The Toy).



In the same year, the first German toy fair took place at Nuremberg. Here another manufacturer tried to draw attention to themselves "with a properly playing dolls house radio, suitable for local reception".


Weyland GmbH radio, as shown at the 1950 Nuremberg Toy Fair, from Das Spielzeug.


Of course, neither of these innovations could succeed at this time for reasons of cost, but they show the ambition of toy manufacturers to continue to reflect in the dolls house not only everyday life, but also dreams of gracious living. Indeed, the play world was more luxurious than the real world for most children.


A 1950s Kibri roombox furnished with a combination TV / radio, another radio, a double wall light and a double standard lamp. From the Borbeck collection.


However, many girls soon had a brightly lit dolls house. From simple kitchen lights to chandeliers, from lamps incorporating home bars to lighted fireplaces, ovens, radios and miniature Christmas trees, there were many possible uses for small light bulbs. In 1952, the new plastics factory Fiedler & Podey advertised a vacuum cleaner with electrical hummer. The 9 x 12 cm large carpet was supplied in colourful packaging.  


Ad for Plasty fridge and vacuum cleaner from Fiedler & Podey, 1952, in Das Spielzeug.


Demonstrating the Plasty vacuum cleaner, 1952, in Das Spielzeug.


Very popular also was the installation of a bell, which was operated by a switch on the side or at the front door of the dollhouse. Other electrical appliances, such as sewing machines or tiny irons, were imitated in non-functioning wood, metal and soon also in plastic. In the living room, there had to be a clock on the cabinet, and sometimes there was a telephone too. In the kitchen of the dolls house, the stove and food processor were mere dummies, only the refrigerator could be lit up on opening.


1952 Fiedler & Podey Plasty fridge with light bulb, in Das Spielzeug.


The small wooden kitchen sinks were almost all equipped with metal or plastic sinks, so that one could certainly fill them up with water, but the toy was much too small to really play cook. Separate doll kitchens, tin stoves or tin sinks were maintained in larger scales on this account, with water containers on the back and plastic water pipes, or, as the case may be, a charcoal stove, which invited them to play.


Ca 1957 Göso tin litho bath. Above, front; below, back showing the water containers for the bath, basin and toilet, and the electrical cord and plug for the light above the basin. From the collection of Roland Schmitt.


In addition to electricity, some devices with mechanical music boxes could also provide more play value. Radios, televisions or even a piano played the tradtional German children’s song “Fox, you stole the goose” or Mozart’s lullaby for the small owners.  


1951 Fiedler & Podey Plasty radio with Swiss musical movement, in Das Spielzeug.


1967 FAO Schwarz (USA) toy catalogue showing imported Bodo Hennig electric lights, a musical television which played a folk tune and showed a Christmas scene in colour, or any 35mm slide, and a grand piano (tune not specified).


An earlier (1961-64) model of the Bodo Hennig musical television with slide viewer., which plays "O Du fröhliche" (a German Christmas carol). The key for the musical movement is on the back (below), and another example of the movement sits on top of the TV.



Shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, a special “picture radio receiver” was available for the dolls house – not a forerunner of television, as one might suspect, as it had no moving images, but rather a precursor of the fax machine. In the play world, it showed the children several interchangeable pictures.

From the mid fifties, more and more televisions could be seen in mail order catalogues, and soon they also belonged in a well-equipped dolls house. The small wooden TVs corresponded in appearance exactly to the larger models, and of course there were the many various radio / TV / record player combinations. Television pictures at first showed black and white images from real TV programmes, eg sporting events such as skiing or ice skating, or else images suitable for children, such as from fairy tales. Later, the pictures were sometimes in colour, even though colour TV was not yet common.

A scene from a Winnetou movie, 1960s, based on the novels of Karl May.


The small replicas were partially lit from inside, so that the TV picture, made of a special translucent material, appeared. Sometimes you could even insert a real slide (as with the Bodo Hennig musical TV above), so you had a functioning slide viewer as well as a model TV. There were also TVs with inbuilt paper rolls on which pictures were printed, which children could turn back and forth.


A 1960s TV with fairytale pictures on paper which could be scrolled back and forth by turning the knobs at the side.


1970s TVs from Bodo Hennig with paper scrolls showing boating scenes.


The television receiver “Bambino”, which the German company Philips showed in 1957 at the radio, television and phono exhibition in Frankfurt, was surely only a publicity stunt. It was expressly intended for the dolls house, and cost the same as a “grown-up” apparatus: approximately 1000 Deutsch Marks (at the time, equivalent to around UK £85 or US$240).


The Philips 'Bambino' TV, with real TV reception, displayed in a roombox at the 1957 Radio, TV and Phono Exhibition, Frankfurt. From Das Spielzeug.



1958 'Stoco' TV from H. Stollenwerk & Co, in Das Spielzeug.


Plastic televisions like the “Stoco TV with 10 colour mechanically moveable pictures” were, on the other hand, found in almost every dolls house. As was emphasized in advertising, these small TVs were also suitable as souvenirs, small gifts or as promotional gifts. When you looked at the light source through the small peephole at the back of the device, you could see colourful fairy-tale motifs or postcard views. They were available in each city as souvenirs.


Plastikop mini TVs, in the 1968 Nuremberg Toy Fair Catalogue.


A small peephole TV (above) which shows scenes from Hansel and Gretel (two examples below) when a button on the base is pushed. Photos © Rebecca Green




 Mushroom floor lamp in a nursery, Jakobsweiler Dolls House Museum.


In the fifties, parents’ living rooms were seldom furnished in the newest look. However, the daughter could try out very bold and playful designs in her dolls house. Lights also were adapted to a wide variety of modern forms from the new style of living. Models such as the mushroom floor lamp immediately attract attention, as does the chain of lanterns produced in the GDR for the terrace.


Chain of lanterns displayed at the "Träume werden wahr" exhibition of German dolls houses of the post-war period, and below, a lantern chain in original box, courtesy seller.



Left, blue and red standing lamp, 1950s/60s; right, yellow floor lamp from Bodo Hennig, 1961-67.




The acid-filled batteries of ca 1900 were probably not always completely safe, going by how happily the manufacturers emphasised the safety of the products now available. An alternative was the transformer, which, connecting all rooms to the power supply, became more common.


1953 Frank & Kahlert range of electrical items for dolls houses, in Das Spielzeug.


In a colourful display by Frank & Kahlert – manufacturers of modern miniature lighting for children – you can see all the various possibilities of electrification in the dolls house. All available lamps are fitted with a cord and plug, and can be connected with the help of colourful attachment devices to a normal flashlight battery. Transformers, tiny plugs and sockets, as well as bulbs, were all part of the deal.

Part of the 1976 range from Kahlert of electrical items for dolls houses, in Das Spielzeug.


Experimental sets in all areas of electricity were available early on, and the useful educational effect of electrifying a dolls house was happily highlighted by sales representatives. So, in the fifties, there was a craft set filled with many small dolls house lamps and accessories, which was expressly directed towards girls. “The Little Low Current Electricians” in 1957 showed on its colourful cover two girls and a boy enjoying the bright lights in their dolls house.


Gordon No 8 The Little Low Current Electricians, above: lid; below: remaining contents. Courtesy seller.



1957 ad for Gordon electrical and woodwork sets, in Das Spielzeug.


The End

For several more decades, girls played with traditional dolls houses, which were happily outfitted with electricity for the next Christmas by their father. The electrical fittings still aimed at replicating adult models, so that toy manufacturers’ catalogues were at first glance indistinguishable from the furniture store catalogues. But beginning in the 80s, wooden dollshouses were losing importance as a toy for girls, and more and more plastic toys in pink, or simple wooden toys for very small children, were found in toy shops for girls instead, none of them copying design styles of the real world. Some firms, like Lundby and Hennig, lasted longer, partly by producing miniatures for grown-ups, but it seems that little girls do not want to play with exact copies of their surroundings any more.


A TV and radio shop display in the Jakobsweiler Dolls House Museum.


Unless otherwise indicated, all photos in this article are © diePuppenstubensammlerin.

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