From working window latches to cross-stitched rugs, porcelain dolls and hinged teddy bears, it's the details within the details that make Sue Newcomb's Victorian dollhouse a journey of discovery for children and adults alike.
"You can probably look at it (the dollhouse) for a day before you find the Santa Claus," comments Sue.
A Hotchkiss resident and local artisan, she has spent the past 10 years (off and on) researching, planning, building and creating her three-story Victorian dollhouse patterned after an actual 1880 New Jersey "Dodd" house.
While Sue says she wasn't really into dollhouses as a young girl, she became interested in them as an adult when her husband's boss asked her to finish a dollhouse kit that he had purchased.
"I got hooked on doing dollhouses," says Sue, who began researching and designing floor plans and elevations for a real Victorian style dollhouse.
"Victorian is the most popular period to duplicate," she adds, noting that the Victorians literally over-stuffed their homes with all types of furnishings and accessories.
After completing initial floor plans and spending time in Colorado Springs researching the Victorian era at a local museum, Sue was ready to undertake her project.
"You do a room at a time and work from the bottom up," she says.
Sue explains that she used a kit for the stained glass windows that accent the dollhouse, "building the house around the windows."
From cutting out all the gingerbread trim with her scroll saw to carving every brick and building all the furniture, Sue has done the majority of the work herself on the dollhouse.
She also designed all the wiring to go through the fireplaces so it would be hidden from view.
Just as a child's eyes light up with the discovery of a hidden treasure, Sue has taken great pride and enjoyment in placing items throughout the dollhouse that viewers might not expect or see on first glance. Several of these unique items include real seashells on the hand-carved bathroom shelves; bell pulls in the kitchen that were used in Victorian times to summon the maid; and a parrot in the sunroom, which was a status symbol for Victorians.
"Theme Christmas trees were also introduced by the Victorians," Sue adds.
In addition to a fully decorated Christmas tree inside the dollhouse, another theme tree accents a separate glassed-in "orangery," a building that Victorians used to grow orange trees in cooler climates, similar to today's solarium or greenhouse.
Part of the fun of this type of project, she notes, is decorating both the dollhouse and orangery to match the changing seasons.
While Sue hasn't really kept track of the total number of hours she has spent building her Victorian dollhouse, the project has encompassed a great deal of time and meticulous attention to detail.
"I did spend 83 hours cross-stitching one rug in the house," she comments. "It often takes as much time and expense to make miniature items as the real thing."
During the time she has spent on her Victorian house, Sue has also completed seven dollhouses and other related projects.
"My next project is to build a 1-inch scale Phaeton carriage to go with the Victorian dollhouse," she says.
Sue's attention to fine detail will continue to be the hallmark of her work as her dollhouses take viewers on a make-believe trip to another time and place.
Sue's Victorian dollhouse is currently on display through the month of December at Gallery Connections in Hotchkiss. The gallery, at 122 East Bridge St., is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m.
The legacy of dollhouses
While many vintage dollhouses were the handiwork of doting fathers or the work of itinerant craftsmen, a large percentage were mass-produced by a variety of businesses, including the noted lithographers McLoughlin Bros. of New York in the late 19th century.
By the early 20th century, a number of toy companies had taken the lead in manufacturing dollhouses and accompanying furniture. Among these were R. Bliss Manufacturing Co., founded in Pawtucket, R.I. in 1832; A. Schoenhut & Co. of Philadelphia; Tynietoy; Tootsietoy; N.D. Cass Co.; and Morton E. Converse & Son.
Bliss' dollhouses have long been sought after by collectors because of their colorful beauty and detail of lithographed designs. These pieces of American history are readily identifiable by the company's name imprinted over the door of each dollhouse.
Like Bliss, Schoenhut also began as a toy maker, producing miniature pianos and expanding into dolls and Humpty Dumpty play circuses. The company is perhaps best known for its one-and-a-half-story bungalows with lithographed brick exteriors, tile roofs and stone foundations.
Tynietoy was founded in 1920 by two women, Marion Perkins and Amy Vernon. They developed one of the earliest cottage industries using local craftsmen to produce a variety of dollhouse styles at their Providence, R.I. site. For example, their colonial style houses were typically painted white with green trim; a Nantucket house was done in gray and white. Other pieces included a New England townhouse, a farmhouse, barn and garage.
Another hallmark of Tynietoy dollhouses was the detail applied to accompanying dollhouse furniture which followed the lines of such 18th century designers as Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Chippendale.
In contrast to Tynietoy's two-woman operation, Tootsietoy was part of a large company which began manufacturing metal toy furniture and vehicles in the early 1920s. Its dollhouses, constructed of cardboard, were put on the market in 1925 primarily to house the metal toy furniture and vehicles.
Contemporaries of both Tynietoy and Tootsietoy were the latter two companies - N.D. Cass and Morton E. Converse & Son - both located in Massachusetts. These firms frequently swapped parts and marketed identical dollhouses.
In addition to the manufactured, vintage dollhouse, collectors also value the one-of-a-kind dollhouses homemade as gifts for that cherished little girl in the family. Many of these now fall into the category of prized artwork - highly detailed and beautifully accessorized.
Many of these pieces also featured removable roofs, hinged facades that swung open, hidden drawers (for jewelry), and in some instances, dollhouses that were actually wired for electricity.
Over the years, dollhouses have only been limited by the creator's imagination. Even items such as packing crates and carved and layered wood from cigar boxes have been turned into a child's dream dollhouse.
While dollhouses for play and imagination were the predominate goal of manufacturers and craftsmen, single furnished "toy rooms" were also used in 19th century Germany as a learning tool for young girls. Typical equipment included copper pots and pans, a stove with an alcohol burner for practice cooking and a sink with a working spigot.
Whatever the purpose, the magical world of the dollhouse has forever inspired the dreams of many a young girl.
-Source: The Encyclopedia of Collectibles, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Va.
Photo: Sue Newcomb's three-story Victorian dollhouse is patterned after an 1880 New Jersey style 'Dodd' house.
A two-story view of the dollhouse, at right, reveals a fully furnished bedroom on the upper level and a parlor decorated for Christmas on the lower level. Above, a closeup of the living/dining room area shows meticulous attention to detail. Note holiday table with gingerbread house, period wallpaper and porcelain figurine with Victorian costume.
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