As a kid, and a tween, I was a huge dollhouse fan, with an obsession for tiny things. I had, at one point, three, all fully (if chaotically) decorated with mixes of expensive mock-oak furniture from the pricey toy store in my city’s fanciest shopping arcade, knock-offs from catalogues, and things I’d rigged myself. My dad and I created an entire house’s frontage out of cardboard; I decorated the walls with wallpaper samples and stuck carpet offcuts on the floors. There is no easier way to guarantee that a girl will keep out of trouble, and lack dates for years, than encouraging her to make dollhouse paintings out of magazine pictures and gold foil “frames” on her weekends. I didn’t care.
Even though I’m now an adult — and married to a man who collected miniature art in his own teens — I still get a twitch of acquisitiveness every time I pass a shop window featuring a wardrobe that could fit into the palm of my hand, or a pot plant with leaves almost too small to see. And I’m not alone; while many parts of the U.S. toy industry are shrinking, dolls and their accoutrements are only becoming more popular, according to the American Toy Association. Which begs the question: Why are we so obsessed with the idea of tiny things that can be easily lost, broken or swallowed by a confused pet?
The psychology of society’s love for dollhouses and miniatures is intriguing, and dates back centuries. Dollhouses weren’t originally conceived as toys; when they arrived on the scene in the 17th century across Germany and Holland, they weren’t even for children. I’ve seen many of these lavish baby-houses, as they were called, in museums; they were objects for wealthy adult women to fill with prized, expensive creations, and weren’t necessarily meant to be touched. The first “playing” dollhouses were kitchens, with pans the size of your thumb and copper kettles, designed as instructive aids to show small girls how to keep house. It was only when girls presumably rebelled and started having fun that the idea of the miniature abode really took hold as an object of play.