Women, Dollhouses and the Possession of Space

This Boxing Day, the BBC will be screening a dramatization of Jessie Burton’s novel The Miniaturist, a fictionalised story based on Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse. Oortman’s dollhouse, now on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is beautiful, elaborate and enormous. It represents a wider trend for women to have, create and curate dollhouses in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century Netherlands. These were much in the same mode of activity and thinking as their male counterparts compiling their cabinets of curiosity; but for women, the dollhouse represented an educational and aspirational tool where they could build their own world, a microcosm of the domestic sphere which they could control.

Dolls’ House of Petronella Oortman (c. 1686-1710)

Dollhouses are fascinating: today seen as a toy, what the dollhouse meant for early modern women was highly different. Women exercised ownership and their own aesthetic values in building their own houses on a small scale, spending considerable amounts commissioning artwork and furniture from key manufacturers and artists. It constituted an educational space where women, and younger girls, could role play at being a mistress of a household, whilst also engaging with contemporary fashion for scientific collections and a burgeoning market for luxury goods.[1] Indeed, Oortman’s house was rumoured to have cost as much as a real house on a canal in Amsterdam.[2] Yet they were not all about confining women to the domestic sphere. As Susan Broomhall points out, whilst at first glance dollhouses appear to indicate the limitations of their ambition, it cannot be ignored that women were engaged in making, collecting, leisure and cementing relationships through the medium of the dollhouse.

Although dollhouses are often viewed as a highly gendered object, and clearly had a specific meaning for women during this period, they could be owned by men too. For example, Albrecht V of Bavaria ordered a cabinet house in 1558, which was to go alongside his collection of five miniature towns. Life in miniature could be a curiosity to explore for both genders.[3] Dollhouses also took on a distinctively gendered identity through their inheritance, particularly in the Dutch case, passed down the matrilineal line. This encouraged female relatives to maintain the control, decoration and curation of domestic space in their own ideal image.

It is not only the Dutch who were fascinated by dollhouses. Indeed, the National Trust has a site dedicated to some of their dollhouse highlights, including a beautiful eighteenth century dollhouse at Uppark, and Beatrix Potter’s dollhouse at Hill Top, where she imagined her famous tales. Perhaps the most famous dollhouse in England is that belonging to Queen Mary, built for her by Sir Edward Lutyens, between 1921 and 1924. By commissioning a house from a leading architect, it shows no expense was spared, and it was to be as true to life as possible to encapsulate Queen Mary’s ideal home. Perhaps the most charming aspect are the two hundred books in the library, penned exclusively by famous authors of the day. Dollhouses were a place to showcase wealth, control and the exercising of excellent taste.

Lizzie Rogers, PhD Student, University of Hull

[1] S. Broomhall, ‘Imagined Domesticities in Early Modern Dutch Dollhouses’, Parergon 24:2 (2007), 50-55.

[2] Rijksmuseum, Dolls’ Houses. Available online: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio/works-of-art/dolls-houses [Accessed 14.12.17].

[3] S. Broomhall, ‘Imagined Domesticities in Early Modern Dutch Dollhouses’, 51-52.


Image: Dolls’ house of Petronella Oortman , wikimedia.


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