Dolls' Houses Past & Present

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

The Museum of the Twentieth Century Home (in Bedroom Three) by Isobel Ridley

In the mid 1990s my husband was relocated to Lancashire and we bought an outsize house with a view to setting up a museum, to be grandly called “The Museum of the 20th Century Home”.  Of course we would live there but part of the house would be open to the public.  The local planning officer was very kind:  “So it would be like living in a stately home?” he asked before suggesting a very low business rate.  Obviously in his opinion the scheme was not likely to make much money. 

Quite a lot of people dream of setting up their own museum, don’t they – I’m not all that eccentric.  In fact, I’m more of the careful and cautious type, and thought it all through at length.  My husband had urged me to indulge my passion for collecting quirky period items and nobly offered to man the front desk, provided he could watch the Test Match at the same time.  However, he cheerfully identified all objects as “Art Deco” so I felt that I had not yet educated him to the required standard. 

In the end the idea of subjecting my nearest and dearest to all the hassle was the deciding factor, and I reluctantly gave up the idea of converting our home into a tourist attraction. 

I can still take you around this imaginary museum, all laid out in my mind.  For a start I definitely wanted to represent an “ordinary” home, one belonging to people of modest means and a random approach to home furnishing, as was typical in the houses I knew in the 1950s.  My parents furnished their first home with an Edwardian sideboard (30 shillings from a second hand shop), Victorian bookcases (bought at local sales by my dad’s grandfather);  a “Utility” bed and bookcase;  plus various other hand-me-downs and the odd new purchase.  Going to choose a pair of armchairs was a major family outing, and my mum had a new sink unit as a birthday present in the late 1950s.  


On top of this, I had (and have) a fascination with those ephemeral fashion fads that can transport you back to a particular era or even a specific year.  Purple skirts, for example – we all had one of those in 1967.  Next year we dyed the skirts black.  Other examples are Poppet beads, of which I have possibly one of the world’s largest collections, long-necked china cats, pressure cookers, wooden biscuit barrels, Tupperware, and so on.  You won’t find any wonderful objects d’art in my collection – it’s all definitely at the junk end of the market.  What is the equivalent nowadays?  Maybe tea lights, model beach huts, table lamps with novelty bases, and cushions, cushions, cushions.

The museum had a room for each decade:  an Edwardian bedroom; a 1930s kitchen;  1960s teenage girl’s bedroom;  1970s living room.  A part room-setting would sit beside showcases, and all that old furniture, now handed down to me, would come into its own.  Thus the 1960s bedroom would have had a divan bed covered in a multi-coloured blanket, and a dressing table with pendant necklaces, make up, and a packet of stockings.  The display case would have a couple of houses on top and contain such things as the long-necked china cats, wooden “Gonks”, and plastic flowers.  I’m sure you get the picture.  For each decade there is suitable tableware – a trio of cup, saucer, and plate.  It may be sad, but I find the changes in shape and pattern of these quite fascinating!  Eventually I donated a “timeline” of these trios to a museum in Preston. 

How has this grandiose fantasy been compressed into Bedroom Three?  To start with, much of the furniture is still in use elsewhere.  My home-making style was once described by a friend as “Bohemian”.  I took this to mean that deep thoughts took precedence over furnishings, but I suspect that what she really meant was that I didn’t do as much housework as I might.  Either way, I live in a (slightly dusty) time-warp.  Then several house moves have meant that the bric-a-brac collections have been refined and reduced - but to counter this my interest in miniatures has brought in a few more dolls’ houses.  Some are vintage, some are home-made, some are toys, some are modern miniatures, and one is even an antique, but each of them is larger than a 1930s teacup or a 1950s necklace.  Nowadays the Museum of the Twentieth Century Home is basically a dolls’ house collection with extra displays of full-size period bric-a-brac.

Bear in mind that there is no (real) bed in Bedroom Three, but it is an awkward shape.  Cheap shelving units from “Wilko” and bookcases are lined up along two walls, with dolls’ houses arranged along the top and period artefacts on the shelves below.  Ideally there should be one unit for each decade, but I whimsically lumped the two ends of the century together on the grounds that Victoriana was all the rage in the 1990s.  Thus a resin cottage sits next to an enamel chamber-stick, and an “Eternal Beau” trio next to a glove stretcher. 

That was the Grand Plan.  There is no room for the antique Lines, still awaiting restoration;  two 1950s houses – one Triang, one Gee Bee - are parked on the landing;  and my lovely “Handicrafts” house - work-in-progress – sits on the dining room table where there is now just enough room for a bowl of porridge. 

Meanwhile my fascination with home-making continues into the 21st Century.  It’s now a boom industry – something to do with the recession, do you think?  There are so many styles around that it makes me dizzy, and in danger of being swamped by little display boxes as I try to capture some of the Trends.  So watch out, Bedroom Two!  This already contains a small doll museum, but there could be space for a few dolls’ houses...

This tiny room-box is not a copy of the real museum but tries to capture the mood.  Like the room itself, it is really much too small for the purpose. 


I had trouble making the shelf units.  Is it in fact possible to cut a set of wooden legs so they are all the same length and at the same time level across the bottom?  I came up with the alternative method of using strips of paper, much easier;  these are cut to the right width then tightly rolled.  I painted them silver and the finished article can pass for a modern shelf unit.

The tiny houses include three made many years ago by my mother, while the one third from the left was made by me, and that on the far right was a key-ring. 

The first unit represents “1900-1910” with a pottery jelly-mould (a button),  a china doll (made by my mother from Milliput), and a clumsy crested-ware holiday souvenir based on a wooden bead.

The bookcase is “Assorted” with dolls’ house books and magazines;  some of them actually have titles.  On the bottom shelf is a Rubik’s Cube;  above it the glass paperweight is not actually Caithness Glass but Oxfam Earring, and maybe some of you can remember pin-and-thread pictures like the one just behind.

The next shelf unit is “1930s and 1950s”, with games from magazine cut-outs, toy cars, dolls, a top (representing one of my mother’s collections), and a wonky 1930s cup and saucer made from that wonderful stuff, Milliput.

Finally we reach “1960s onwards”.  There was quite an arty-crafty boom in the 60s and 70s, so there is an appliqué cat cushion, paper flower, and studio pottery mug on the top shelf.   A dolphin, silver moon, and an artificial topiary tree represent some of the interests of the end of the century. 

The round object stuck to the bottom shelf is supposed to be one of those fluffy things you used to find everywhere;  this one is a miniscule pompom with bead eyes and red cardboard feet, while his ribbon says “2000” – a sort of Millennium bug to round off the century.

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