Dolls' Houses Past & Present

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

An Australian doll house lover abroad by Carol Barelli


Recently I had the opportunity to visit the US as my 20 year old daughter was on exchange. As this was my first visit to America, the dilemma became where to go and what to see in the time available. New York, Niagara, Yellowstone, New England, Washington etc, the choice was confusing. It was all a bit overwhelming until I realized that my interest in collecting dolls and doll houses could help me out. I decided to visit Chicago and New York before I met up with Kate, my daughter in Amherst, near Boston and then we travelled home together via a stopover in Los Angeles.


Chicago—the first thought that comes to mind is its gangster history. However I felt very safe there and found people to be extremely helpful and friendly.  It has a very attractive setting on the shore of Lake Michigan. Architecture relating to skyscrapers has never been a particular interest of mine but the enthusiasm and knowledge of people there changed my view and I will never be able to view tall buildings in quite the same way again!


The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry is home to Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle. Colleen Moore was a celebrity from the silent film era and was one of the first flappers. She decided to create a perfect residence for an imaginary fairy prince and princess. As for Queen Mary’s doll house, top artisans were engaged to realize her dream. It is certainly magic—from the weeping willow tree in the magic garden which really weeps tears (the entire house is plumbed and wired of course) to the tiniest Bible in the world, printed in 1840. Other books were contributed by Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne du Maurier and F. Scott Fitzgerald to name a few. There are murals painted by Walt Disney and Egyptian and Roman miniature statues believed to be over 2,000 years old. The house has no occupants as Colleen wanted each viewer to imagine their own adventures there. It really is a must see and an enchanting experience.


The next day the Art Institute of Chicago was on my programme. This is home to the Thorne Miniature rooms. Mrs. Thorne was a resident of Chicago in the 1930s and had a great interest in miniatures and also in historical styles of interior design. Any conversations between her and Colleen Moore would have been very interesting! At that time it was becoming popular for museums to present full scale period rooms. Mrs. Thorne realized that for all periods to be represented would take an enormous amount of floor space. She created almost 100 rooms representing mostly English, French and American styles from the Tudors through to the 1930s. Sixty eight are preserved at the Chicago Institute of Art. My favourite American room was probably the Virginia parlour from about 1765. It is inspired by the parlour where George Washington lived for most of his adult life. It is set ready for tea just waiting for its occupants to appear through the doorway from the room glimpsed yonder. The windows have a view out to Mt Vernon.

It was hard to pick a favourite from the European rooms but I did love the English Cottage Kitchen from the Queen Anne period with its flagstone floor and view of a flower filled garden and other thatched roof cottages through its windows. The English Drawing room from the 1930s was also wonderful with its combination of traditional English restraint with the then new materials and art deco influence.



My third dolls house adventure in Chicago was a visit to the Tom Bishop international miniatures’ show. How lucky was I that this show, held twice a year was on in Chicago just when I was there! It has about 250 stalls from the top artisans from all over the world. I had pre bought a ticket to the preview day so took my place in the very long queue before opening time, along with many other excited women and a lesser number of men! There were three large reception rooms full of stalls and I had a wonderful time, with the main problem being what I would purchase. It is wonderful to see so many people with an avid interest in miniatures and artisans with such wonderful work.


I regretfully left Chicago and went on to New York where I had a very interesting time but not with miniatures! Annapolis was the next stopover, and then after meeting my daughter, we went onto Los Angeles. We stayed in Santa Monica and had been advised not to miss the Angels Attic museum which was walking distance from our hotel.


Angels Attic: replica of the Palace of Versailles


This is a very interesting collection housed in a Queen Anne house. It has seven galleries displaying many dolls houses, mostly antique, and some contemporary. There are so many it is difficult to pick out a highlight, but it was wonderful to see the Mulvaney and Rogers miniature of Versailles. ‘Heidi’ was a favourite book as a child so I was blown away when I saw the dolls house of Johanna Spyri. There is also has a gallery of beautiful antique dolls.


Angels Attic: 3 room roombox reputed to have belonged to Johanna Spyri






Angels Attic: Mexican Dolls House complete with internal lift.



Angels Attic: a Gottschalk doll house, which features on the cover of The Genius of Moritz Gottschalk, by Evelyn Ackerman



As you can see I had a wonderful time and I have not talked about the Theriaults auction I attended in Annapolis, which is another story, but I could not resist inviting a couple of small dolls from there to hop into my bag for the trip back to Melbourne!

I was incredibly fortunate to be able to visit these places. I would thoroughly recommend researching what dolls houses can be fitted into any sojourn overseas.

Good luck!