The Dollhouse

Diane Creber

Queen Mary's Dolls' House is a dollhouse built in the early 1920s, completed in 1924, for Queen Mary, the wife of King George V. It was designed as a 1:12 scale miniature royal palace by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, with contributions from many notable artists and craftsmen of the period, including a library of miniature books containing original stories written by authors including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and A. A. Milne.

[This article appears in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of The SCOOP.]

The Christmas our daughter Devon turned three promised to be special. Now that she was old enough to be excited about the holiday, my husband Tim and I also got caught up in her enthusiasm. The three of us went into the woods and cut our Christmas tree. Devon helped decorate it, placing the ornaments within her reach on the lower branches.

We baked and decorated a gingerbread house, and she put the smiley faces on the gingerbread men. Devon and Tim put up decorations on the lawn and she made paper chains that we hung around the house.

At her daycare, the children painted pictures of Santa and his reindeer and told each other what they hoped Father Christmas would bring them. The season’s highlight was a trip to visit Santa at the mall where Devon had her photo taken on his knee. It was all she talked about that December.

We were stumped, though, as to what we could give her. We wanted a Christmas present that she would enjoy as a young child, but also treasure as she grew older. We thought, by making the gift ourselves, it would have special meaning and also become a cherished memory. We racked our brains. Then Tim suggested building a dollhouse.

After searching books for designs, we realized that the scale for a conventional dollhouse was much too small for a young child’s tiny hands. We wanted something larger. There was no choice but to design and build it ourselves.

With both Tim and me being self-employed and Christmas our busiest season, it was difficult to find time to build the dollhouse, especially since we could only work on it after our business was closed for the day and when Devon was asleep. We found ourselves working late into the night.

We designed our creation twice the size of a normal dollhouse—two and-a-half stories high with windows and doors, a chimney, and two dormers. We placed the structure on a plywood board that extended about six inches from the base around the perimeter. Underneath were two drawers that could be used for storing extra furniture. Because of its size and weight, we put the house on wheels so it could be pushed around.

After the dwelling was constructed, I painted the siding and window trim. Around the perimeter, I glued outdoor carpeting that resembled grass. Green painted loofah sponge, stuck on to small twigs formed trees. Stones became rocks. Tim made tiny cedar shakes for roof shingles. His big hands got cut more than once doing the intricate carving.

Inside, we built a kitchen, living room, dining room, bathroom, two bedrooms, and an attic. Pages cut from out-of-date wallpaper sample books decorated the walls. Shag carpeting made from old towels covered the floors, and I sewed miniature curtains for the windows. We even painted light switches and electrical sockets on the walls.

We searched several toy stores for dollhouse furnishings only to discover that manufactured furniture, made to fit a normal-sized house, would look ridiculously small in something this size. We would now have to make the furniture too!

Using porcelain clay, I fashioned a miniature bathtub, toilet, sinks, a refrigerator and stove, plus a set of dishes, including a teapot. Tiny bottle shapes became lamp bases with plastic thimbles as shades. Tim carved a dining table and four chairs, and a sofa shape that I covered with maroon velvet with matching cushions. He carved the base for a grandfather clock placing an old Timex watch face in the top of the cabinet. There was a double bed with a mattress, blankets and pillows, matching bed-side tables and dresser, plus a bunk bed complete with a ladder. We even had towels hanging from rods in the bathroom and I carved a bar of soap for the bathtub. We found two little dolls that were to scale and placed them in the bedrooms. As we laboured, we talked about the wonderful surprise Devon would have on Christmas morning when she saw our masterpiece.

On Christmas Eve, we finally got our daughter to bed after she hung her stocking and put out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for Santa. She was so excited we had to read her several bedtime stories before she went to sleep. When she was finally down for the night, we carried the dollhouse from the studio and set it up in front of the Christmas tree where it would be the first thing she would see when she entered the room. Then we arranged the other gifts around it.

The next morning Devon woke up early, anxious to run downstairs to see if Santa had come. Tim ran down first to turn on the Christmas tree lights and have his camera ready to capture the look on her face when she saw the dollhouse. This was going to be a Kodak moment.

Full of giddy anticipation, Devon burst eagerly into the room. Taking a quick look around, her face broke into a huge grin. The camera was ready. With a cry of delight, she rushed past the dollhouse and headed straight for the bright orange plastic flying saucer sled, purchased from Canadian Tire for $5.99. Delighted, she leapt into the sled, moving her body back-and-forth pretending she was sledding.

After a few minutes, she returned to her bedroom, gathered up her dolls and teddies, put them into the sled and pulled them all around the house while singing Jingle Bells. Our beautiful handmade gift wasn’t even noticed.

The dollhouse remained untouched for over a year. It was painful for us to admit that our gift was perhaps not age-appropriate. On the other hand, Tim and I had shared the joy of building the dollhouse together and creating a special present that showed our love.

As time went by, Devon gradually started playing with the dollhouse. And as she got older, it became a favourite toy—something she enjoyed for many years. While still young, she crayoned on the walls and lost or broke dishes. Over time, shingles fell off the roof and the wallpaper took on a dingy look. When Devon was about twelve, we finally retired the dollhouse to the attic where it remained for decades.

Two years ago, when we moved to a smaller house, many of our possessions were either given away or hauled off to the dump. But not the dollhouse: that we stored in the garage of our new place where it took up a great deal of space.

Devon is now a mother with a daughter of her own. A few weeks ago, we gave her the dollhouse. It was much worse for wear and most of the furniture was missing or broken. Instead of fixing it ourselves, Tim and I decided we would let Devon and her husband, Alex, work on the derelict together, so they could give it as a special present to their daughter. However, we did suggest that they wait until she was old enough to appreciate it.