Dolls' Houses Past & Present

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The Stettheimer Dollhouse: A Biography, Part I by Kaitlin Vaughan


I watched as three young girls stood with their noses pressed to glass, condensation from their breath creating concentric shapes on the “walls” of the dining room and kitchen. Two older women lingered behind them, craning their necks to see over the girls’ heads. The five pairs of eyes lit up like the tiny crystals in the miniature chandeliers; and soon each one flitted from room to room, pointing at furniture, wallpaper, gasping at the microscopic details, and beckoning for the others to come and see. The young girls whispered about their recently abandoned Barbie dream houses, and the older women waxed nostalgic about the cardboard homes they made for their “Ginny” dolls.


Unlike these guests, it wasn’t my first visit to the Stettheimer dollhouse; I had been tarrying around it for the past five months. The frequency of my patronage did not cull my excitement for the assemblage of tiny treasures; each time I made discoveries and gawked at newly detected details. I often found myself wondering if that curtain hadn’t been opened a bit more the week before, or if the bed was slightly more rumpled than usual. The house seems alive, teeming with evidence of active tenants, so much so that it is easy to imagine a Night at the Museum scenario- after the patrons had gone home for the day, the Stettheimer sisters would slowly emerge from their hiding places. Fashionable guests would begin to arrive. Extravagant dishes and drinks were served. The sounds of a piano playing, miniature toes tapping on linoleum floors, and champagne glasses toasting would echo within the glass-bonneted display. Intellectual arguments and witty jokes would reverberate late into the night. Only when the sun began to arise would the Stettheimers’ illustrious guests bid their adieus, and the sisters retreat from view, preparing for another day of giant faces fawning over their decor at the Museum of the City of New York.


This house of miniature proportions has perched inside the museum since 1947 and through the years has become a charismatic fixture impregnated with transformative meanings and memories. Since its acquisition, visitors to the museum have forged relationships with the dollhouse, offering up their own explanations, nostalgically sharing their own experiences, and discerning from it varying kinds of information and affect. It inhabits a mysterious domain, beyond the ordinariness of its material property. The magic behind this dollhouse and its perpetual magnetism can be untangled through an analysis of its fascinating life.

The story begins with the dollhouse’s creator, Carrie Stettheimer, the oft forgotten member of a famous trio of Manhattanite sisters. Though little is known of her, much intrigue has been garnered through her relationship to her sisters, Ettie and Florine, and her many creative friends, who were members of the avant-garde movement in 1920s New York City. Since its inception, the dollhouse has taken on many layers, both anatomically and otherwise. The Stettheimer Dollhouse’s rich, fraught history is much like the history of a human, its physicality and meanings transforming in a distinct linearity, presenting itself uniquely and resolutely to each of its subjects, acting as a mirror of its creator, the Museum of the City of New York, and the museum’s patrons.

In the Stettheimer Dollhouse’s biography there exists a specific demarcation, between its private life as a treasured possession and artwork of Carrie Stettheimer’s, and its public existence, while on display at the Museum of the City of New York. From its birth in 1919, when Carrie first commissioned the exterior construction, and until it was gifted by Carrie’s sister Ettie to the Museum of the City of New York in 1945, the dollhouse lead a life of limited appreciation-- only Carrie, her sisters, and an elite circle of friends were able to participate in the invocation and evocation of meaning and memory. While under Carrie’s control, the house became a very fundamental part of Carrie’s identity. She the collector-- it the collected; the house informed, and was informed by Carrie’s character from the moment she commissioned its creation. Much of what we know of Carrie is pulled from what we can surmise through our observation of her artistic creations. One can imagine that the dollhouse acted similarly for her-- as a way to navigate her own identity, emotions, and passions. Its habitation within the museum marks the beginning of its public life, inciting the arrival of countless engagements for over 67 years. 


The Lives of Objects


“Ordinary objects which have long been used by one master take on a sort of personality, their own face, I could almost say a soul, and the folklore of all nations is full of these beings more human than humans, because they owe their existence to people and, awakened by their contact, take on their own life and autonomous activities, a sort of latent and fantastic willfulness.”

Paul Claudel, in Janet Hoskins, Biographical Objects: How Things Tell the Stories of People's Lives, 1

The prospect of writing a biography about a non-human entity can be a little more than strange for a number of rather obvious reasons. An object has no ability to move or act freely of its own accord and is capable of possessing neither thoughts, nor emotions. However, objects do not exist without humans, and humans do not exist without objects. They are essential actors in all of our lives and must be considered and regarded as such. They are paramount performers in the history and progression of humanity; we measure time and our own competence through the creation of things. We have given agency to many of these objects. Our things retain an intrinsic power, possessing an almost hypnotic force over us. We rely on them for entertainment, for knowledge, to sustain life. We love our objects; we coddle them; we worship them. We have all celebrated the existence and mourned the loss of certain objects, and with their own “deteriorat[ion] and fad[ing] with the years, we recognize our own aging” (Hoskins 1998, 8). Objects must be given the opportunity to express and communicate their role in history; they are deserving of a biography, an account of their life, a close examination of the many characteristics and events that culminate and congeal to make their sum.

Jean Baudrillard begins his essay “The System of Collecting” by stating, “the objects that occupy our daily lives are in fact the objects of a passion, that of personal possession, whose quotient of invested affect is in no way inferior to that of any other variety of human passion” (1994, 7). Baudrillard believes that by collecting, people aim to “piece together his [or her] world, his [or her] personal microcosm.” Beginning at an early age, collecting becomes a way for children to “exercise control over the outer world,” and this desire expands far into adulthood (1994, 8). Relationships with one’s objects can resemble human relationships, relationships that are sometimes privileged because one can more easily relate to one’s own things over others' possessions, just as one can more easily relate to themselves over others. A collector is in command over his or her things, quite unlike a person’s relationship to another human. One’s relationship to his or her things is exceptionally personal. Walter Benjamin affirms “for a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have with objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them” (1986, 67). Through a collection, one can create a “paradigm of perfection…achieve its ambitions, within a space where the everyday prose of the object-world modulates into poetry, to institute an unconscious and triumphant discourse” (Baudrillard 1994, 8). This discourse, however, is one that is to remain unfinished. A collection is never really complete; it and the sanity of the collector depend on the wanting of an object(s).  


The Dollhouse and Female Identity


Historically, the dollhouse has a strong relationship with female identity; it is a deeply gendered object. During the post industrial revolution era, boys were encouraged to develop their intelligence and brawn, while little girls were pushed to learn etiquette and domestic responsibilities. Tea parties and dollhouses were often the only types of play allowed; girls were unknowingly gaining necessary skills they would use as women (Forman-Brunell 2001). The miniature house acted as a utensil for feminization, “didactic tools” and instruments enabling role-play, preparing them for adulthood (Broomhall 2008, 49). Through the houses, girls learned the proper way to run a household, clean a household, and decorate a household.

Dollhouses establish a very definite relationship between the home and the woman for children. The home, miniature or otherwise, is commonly regarded as feminine. Men have been categorically placed into the public sphere, women left to the private, responsible for nurturing and tending to all interior domains. The home became an essential part of a woman’s identity; the induction into the private world of the home was the impetus for many female interior decorators. Through the home “women found a means not only of representing the dominant cultural themes of the day-- family, class, nation, etc.-- but of externalizing themselves. As a result, their homes became material manifestations of their personal identities” (McKellar and Sparke 2004, 72). The same, I suggest, can happen to the miniature spaces they create.

Historically, dollhouses and other adult women’s material practices are deemed merely craft. They are not considered Art, rather a pastime, created in the spare time one might have after completing the chores in her home. Carrie Stettheimer lived during an age when women were particularly disenfranchised, a time when femininity was defined by “piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity” (Graves 1982, 21). Women were “not considered capable of creating significant art,” and thus underappreciated in the creative realm (Bloemink 1995, x). The Stettheimer sisters, who, despite showing hints of “a female impulse to power as opposed to the erotic impulse which alone is supposed to impel women,” were forced by societal normalities to keep their talents relatively clandestine (Bloemink 1995, x).

Carrie, especially, kept her artistic projects furtive. By creating a dollhouse, she was able to maintain an outlet for total control over creative identity expression, while still fitting into a conception of femininity. In her journal, Florine Stettheimer left behind a poem that poignantly describes the struggle between a conventional and truthful expression of identity-- one that can be appreciated not only by Florine, but also by her sisters and other female artists of the day (and beyond).




A human being

Saw my light

Rushed in

Got singed

Got scared

Rushed out

Called fire

Or it happened

That he tried

To subdue it

Or it happened

He tried to extinguish it

Never did a friend

Enjoy it

The way it was.

So I learned to

Turn it low

Turn it out

When I meet a


Out of courtesy

I turn on a soft

Pink like

Which is found


Even charming.

It is protection

Against wear

And tears…

And when

I am rid of

The Always-to-be-


I turn on my light

And become


(Florine Stettheimer, in Bloemink 1995, xiii)


Carrie and Her Sisters


“… the ultimately indissoluble family of the mother and three daughters—Carrie, Ettie, and Florine—represented a self-sufficient cult of females...”

Parker Tyler, in Sussman et al, Florine Stettheimer: Manhattan Fantastica, 1966


Caroline (Carrie) Stettheimer was born in 1869, the third child of five, to a wealthy German Jewish family. Her father, Joseph Stettheimer, a banker, abandoned the family, leaving behind Carrie, her mother Rosetta, her two older siblings Walter and Stella, and her two younger sisters Florine and Ettie. Walter and Stella moved to the United States soon after, while the three youngest sisters and their mother remained for a time in Europe, where they “liv[ed] a life of exceptional independence for women of their era” (Clark 2009, 7). At the onset of WWI, the family moved to New York City; their townhouse on 102 W. 76th Street was soon to become a “shrine to their collective femininity,” where they “ruled, for almost a generation, one of the acknowledged intellectual salons of the town” (Richardson 2001, 75, Jacobs 1965, 311). During their rule, New York was buzzing with the Avant Garde scene, and “at the epicenter of this dizzy, mandarin world was a precious trio, the Stettheimer sisters” (Richardson 2001, 73).

Carrie, blue eyed, square jawed, and oldest of the trio, was renowned for her kindness and fashion sense. She was “firmly entrenched in nineteenth-century behavior and appearance. Her clothing tended toward the romantic, with bustle skirts and feathered hats” (Bloemink 1995, 5). Unlike her sisters, she “engaged in numerous charitable, social, and domestic activities befitting a proper nineteenth century lady” (Bloemink 1995, 9). She rolled bandages for the Red Cross during the war, played nurse to her invalid mother, and orchestrated the family’s active household so that her sisters, Ettie and Florine, were free to participate in their creative pursuits. Isabelle Lachaise referred to her as “the angel of the house, [giving] comfort and ease to arguments that might arise” (Bloemink 1995, 229). Unlike her sisters, because Carrie left behind very little correspondence and no diaries, her life has become the object of speculation. Much of what we know about Carrie comes from accounts left behind by her sisters.

Carrie Stettheimer (Van Vechten 1932) 


Ettie, the youngest child, regarded as stubborn, intellectual, hot-headed and a “flirtatious wit,” was a published author and philosopher. She attended college, and was outspoken with her opinions and feminist ideologies (Mileaf 1996, 77). Ettie survived both sisters, and much of what is known about the family comes from her revisions of Florine’s diary and edited correspondence. Florine was known for her quiet demure, she was a “disappointed, reclusive, and virginal artist,” a painter whose style reflects her whimsical modernist sensibility (Bloemink 1995, xv). Many of her paintings were symbolic portraits of her friends and family. Like Carrie, Florine was very concerned with the adornment of her personal spaces, “drap[ing] her bedroom in lace and her studio in cellophane” (Bloemink 1995, xv). For both Carrie and Florine, “the concept of interior space as the visual correlative for individual persona was pivotal,” and they sometimes argued over the decoration of their home (Bloemink 1995, 20).

All three sisters remained unmarried for their entire lives. “Declar[ing] men impossible but worthy of flirtation,” the three untraditional women completely “disdained marriage, romance, and children” (Nathan 1995, 12). Florine’s biographers remarked that the fact that the sisters never married is often “interpreted as intimating that their single status was a result of eccentricity, lesbian inclinations, or physical appearance, rather than personal choice,” though the latter is most clearly the case (Nathan 1995, 12). All three were reportedly courted by various men, but there is no evidence of anything further. Florine’s diary mentions male friends and crushes, but the idea of marriage was completely unappealing. One entry recorded the discovery of her friend’s marriage in Florine’s response: “her husband is very unattractive, but most husbands are!” (Bloemink 1995, 14). It is presumed that the Stettheimers’ disinterest in the arrangement stemmed from their father’s abandonment, which “freed them from believing that matrimony and romantic love would or could represent the sine qua non of their lives” (Bloemink 1995, 5). The sisters instead chose to entirely devote themselves to their mother and each other.

Rosetta’s persistent illnesses, frequent depressions, and often controlling disposition required a lot of time and energy from all three sisters, particularly Carrie. Despite her domestic responsibilities and demanding mother, Carrie managed to participate in the social events she orchestrated. The sisters’ salon enabled close friendships and mutually inspirational relationships with the early twentieth century’s most talented painters, musicians, writers, and other intellectuals. The attendees were likened to members of Bloomsbury, but “less uptight and intellectually snobbish—hence more fun.” The press of the time called them “the streamlined intelligentsia” (Richardson 2001, 73). Georgia O’Keefe, Carl Van Vechten, Marcel Duchamp, Muriel Draper, Gaston Lachaise, Gertrude Stein, Alfred Stieglitz and countless others were frequent guests of the Stettheimers', enriched by the home’s intellectually nourishing atmosphere and fascinated by the slightly eccentric trio that were the Stettheimer sisters.

Marcel Duchamp, whom the sisters supported in exchange for French lessons, reported that they were “inveterate celibates, entirely devoted to their mother. They were so funny and so far out of what American life was like then” (Richardson 2001, 73). Carl Van Vechten, who photographed the trio, noted that they were “an exotic if somewhat strange trio: Ettie in red wigs, brocades, and diamonds; Carrie, who never dressed in the fashions of the day but in the elegance of a past era; Florine in white satin pants” (Kuhl 2003, 74). Georgia O’Keefe remembers them as “very different, but they were also very much more like each other than they were like the rest of us” (Kuhl 2003, 74). Reportedly, the sisters often quarreled and were slightly competitive-- especially Florine and Ettie. Believing that their dedication to each other may have impeded their individual development, Isabelle Lachaise remarked, “the tie between them, although a devoted one, I have felt might be almost too binding” (Bloemink 1995, 211).

Though the sisters formed a wholly creative trifecta, like other creative women of their day, they were often remembered “not as the collaborators, essential publicity agents, exacting editors, or intellectual partners that they were but as housekeepers and secretaries” (Kuhl 2003, 10). Carrie’s days were filled with salon preparations; she did the shopping, created elaborate and inventive menus, and procured alcohol, even during prohibition (Bloemink 1995, 166). Her artistic sensibilities were often overlooked, and according to Ettie, she resented her domestic commitments and would have much preferred a career as a set designer, a vocation that Florine went on to employ (Clark 2009, 11).

Much of what we know about Carrie’s creative aspirations comes from what her sisters have written and created about her. Florine called her a “decorator, designer, and collector” (Bloemink 1995, 148). Florine’s paintings of Carrie portray her looking refined and majestic, yet often as if she were evaporating into the painting. In one of Florine’s architectural paintings, she “alludes to Carrie’s personality as quiet and impenetrable as the stone…stylistically and intellectually caught between divergent centuries” (Bloemink 1995, 204). In her symbolic floral family portrait, Carrie appears as the “fragile yet regal day lily” (Bloemink 1995, 201). In Florine’s most famous portrait of Carrie, she fades into the background: a farmhouse, which Carrie hoped to someday acquire, and a tea table surrounded by friends is set nearby. In the foreground, a cheerful looking Carrie holds a miniature chair, proudly gesturing to her most prized possession, her dollhouse.



Portrait of My Sister, Carrie W. Stettheimer (Stettheimer 1923) 


"Salve" to the Stettheimer Dollhouse

“Like an impressionist painting, which loses far more of its quality in a black-and-white photograph than does a canvas of the realist school, Carrie Stettheimer’s dolls’ house properly reveals its tenuous charms only in actuality.”

Flora Gill Jacobs, A History of Dolls' Houses, 314


Though many have theorized that Carrie’s dollhouse functioned as a three-dimensional multimedia self-portrait and a means of gaining control over her frustrating domestic duties, Carrie’s dollhouse did not stem from these compulsions, nor was this house her first. She constructed her first dollhouse in the summer of 1916 out of wooden boxes from the grocer. She donated it to a charity event in Saranac Lake to benefit infantile paralysis. Rosetta, Carrie’s mother, won the house, and after re-donating it earned between $500- $1000 for the charity. According to Ettie, Carrie was deeply inspired by this production, where she was simultaneously creating an object of “intrinsic worth” and contributing to a worthwhile cause. She embarked on the creation of her masterpiece dollhouse at the end of that year (Clark 2009, 10).


The Façade (Museum of the City of New York 2013b) 



A neighborhood carpenter built the façade of the house in colonial style. It was modeled after the Stettheimer’s summer home in the Adirondacks called Andre Brook, a rather plain exterior in comparison to its glamorous interior (Clark 2009). Carrie was in her mid-forties when she began to work; her miniature house was never intended to be used by children, but to be appreciated by adults. There were no dolls included, an element that Carrie had initially imagined would be present at some point in her work on the house, but in the end decided against it, declaring in a letter to Gaston Lachaise: “I am now hoping [the dolls] will never be born, so that I can keep them forever in custody, and enjoy them myself, while awaiting their arrival” (Nathan 1995).

Carrie worked on the house for nearly 20 years, applying wallpaper, painting trim, sewing curtains, collecting miniature furniture and utensils, and commissioning famous works of art in miniature from her celebrated friends. The house is a microcosm of the eclectic interior design of 1920’s New York. Using motifs and patterns from around the world-- France, China, India, Argentina, etc., and from vastly divergent time periods in art-- from Baroque to Avant Garde, the house reads like an encyclopedic history of interior decorating and design.

The following is a tour of the dollhouse, as it looked when Carrie abandoned it in 1944. It is important to note that the names of the rooms are not Carrie’s original names, but instead created by Ettie and the museum; these names are used (and italicized) here for the purpose of clarity.

The 12 room house stands at 28” high, 50” long, and 35” wide. The façade, deliberately plain and not necessarily noteworthy, opens up to a grand entranceway, or foyer, with a welcome mat that reads “Salve,” ‘welcome’ in Latin. The walls are lined with paper depicting a French garden, forming a vue d’optique that Carrie cleverly imposed to create an illusion of greater depth. In the center is a functioning elevator, which Carrie’s mother would have required had it been a life-size Stettheimer home. An impressive yet tiny chandelier lights the room.


The front of the house (Museum of the City of New York 2013c) 



To the right of the foyer, is the chinoiserie library. The walls are lined with a silver reflective paper, the furniture painted red. The bookshelves are filled with miniature books, each inscribed with the names of famous writers of the day, many of whom were her friends. One is authored by Henrie Waste, Ettie’s pen name. On the table in the middle sits a mah-jongg set, a Chinese game similar to rummy. The tiles, decorated with microscopic numbers and symbols, were created by Carrie, a presumably painstaking task. Next to one chair sits a lone cigar, a single cigarette by the other—each set aside as if for just a moment, while its smoker contemplated his or her next move.

The room on the other side of the foyer is the kitchen. The table is set for a meal; fish is plated, toast sits in the rack, and mouthwatering desserts wait atop the icebox. On the shelf there are various jars and bottles, including one labeled ‘Scotch.’ Utensils line the wall; the floor below is delicately tiled.

Above the kitchen is the nursery, my personal favorite room of the house. The walls are decorated with pastel triangles resembling confetti. The molding is an exquisite and comical frieze of Noah’s ark. Female figures carry umbrellas, wear swimsuits, and whimsically march alongside animals, two by two, of course. Only one man is present, wearing a raincoat following a pig up the stairs into the ark. The floor is covered by miniature versions of miniature furniture, a few music stands, and an old victrola and globe.

Situated next to the nursery is the linen room, with expansive closet space, covered in cloth from Argentina, rosettes sewn in the center. Through the upstairs hall is the master bedroom, containing two single beds, as was fashionable at the time. The beds are fully made, every piece of linen present-- blankets, sheets, pillows, and a spread, all tucked neatly atop their tiny mattresses. Through the master bedroom is the pink bathroom, complete with mini pink dumbbells and a shaving set. The door on the other side leads to the rose bedroom, similarly composed, using the same traditionally feminine palette as the pink bathroom. With its silk striped walls and canopied bed, the “effect is one of a peaceful and very feminine retreat” (Clark 2009, 30). Down below the master bedroom, the regal salon sits in all of its formality, decorated in a stiffer, traditional style, with mirrored fireplaces, candelabras, pastoral paintings, and gilded furniture.



Left Side of the House (with John Noble’s dolls) (CDHM) 


Beyond the nursery and on the other side of the kitchen, is the back staircase and butler’s pantry, lined with brooms and buckets. The multi-level corridors are colorfully decorated in a modern floral pattern, presumably painted by Carrie. The butler’s pantry connects to the green bathroom, aptly named, where a large (relatively speaking) scale sits and medicine cabinets are stuffed with tiny medicine bottles. The chintz bedroom is connected here, where Carrie is thought to have stumbled upon the technique of pattern on pattern, not yet fashionable at the time. The walls and furniture are covered in chintz, or glossed fabric, printed with peacocks and flowers. A needlepoint rug sits on the floor; an iconoclastic painting of an angel hangs on its wall.


Back of the House (Helga Photo Studio) 


Below the chintz bedroom is the dining room, a room Carrie left unfinished before her death. Not much is reported about its state before the project was taken over by Ettie. In the upper terrace, clematis runs up a grate, a bird perches, and a pitcher and glasses are set out on a table surrounded by empty chairs. The unfinished art gallery is right below. The room was due to hold work donated or commissioned from artists such as Alexander Archipango, Louis Bouche, Marcel Duchamp, Albert Gleizes, Gaston Lachaise, Carl Sprinchorn, Albert Sterner, Paul Thevenaz, Claggett Wilson, Marguerite Zorach, and William Zorach (Clark 2009, 9). Carrie planned a family portrait painted by Florine to also be on display.


Art Gallery and Ballroom (Museum of the City of New York 2013a) 


Carrie reportedly spent all available free time on her little home. Various explanations have been proposed: that her “attraction to the dollhouse stemmed from the very fact that it was unreal,” that it was a world of “play and fantasy, detached from the drudgery and responsibility” and that it came to represent a “surrogate for a normal family structure,” opposite to her rather unconventional childhood (Mileaf 1996, 79). Others suggested that, due to her position as an unmarried, childless woman during a time when this was highly unconventional, the house and its eventual dolls would represent the home and family she would never have of her own (Richardson 2001). Ettie crafted her own explanations for Carrie, declaring that it was quite simply a proxy for a career in stage design (Clark 2009).


When their mother died in 1935, Carrie abandoned her miniature house. Though there is no recorded reason for her desertion, it is known that the sisters’ social life came to a halt as well at this time, suggesting that the sisters were too distraught to continue with activities that formerly brought amusement.

Carrie died unexpectedly after experiencing an “eye migraine” during dinner with Ettie in 1944 (Bloemink 1995, 230). Ettie was devastated, and soon arranged for her sister's dollhouse to be given to the Museum of the City of New York so that her memory could live on. This move into the public realm forever changed the life and identity of the dollhouse. It no longer belonged to Carrie, but to the Museum of the City of New York, free to transmit entirely new meanings and affect onto all of the museum’s visitors.




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