Antique and Vintage Dollhouse Food
by Tracy Harnish
Is there any type of dollhouse miniature more captivating than food? Miniature foods have always been my favorite dollhouse collectibles, and I believe my interest in them goes back to seeing the illustrations in Beatrix Potter's 1904 book, 'The Tale of Two Bad Mice'.
In this classic children’s story, two mice break into a dollhouse and attempt to eat the delicious looking dinner laid out on the table. When they discover the food is made of plaster and glued to the plates, they smash it to bits in frustration and then go on a destructive rampage as they burglarize the house. The dollies, upon returning home, immediately engage a Steiff policeman doll to watch over their residence.
I've always found the illustrations of the dollhouse food in 'The Tale of Two Bad Mice' to be charming and intriguing, and I was thrilled when I finally found an antique dollhouse ham just like the one depicted (German, circa 1900.)
Another ham is my oldest piece of dollhouse food. Shown below, it’s about 1 1/4 inch wide, made of a papier-mache-like substance, and still on its original carton-paper plate. It came from Germany in the late 1800s. It's not particularly pretty, but it's old, and it's amazing to me how something so small and fragile has survived.
My finest sets of antique miniature food are these two, made in France circa the 1890s – early 1900s, still in their original boxes. They are unplayed with; in fact, most of the pieces are still tied down with their original twine. The boxes feature beautifully lithographed labels with scenes of little bakers cooking (and drinking!) and children dining.
A lovely old stove features in this image, and note the
oversized frying pan on the burner.
That's some giant omelette they're making!
Inside are complete sets of beautiful miniature play food, clearly intended for a fancy supper party. The items are painted plaster, in a scale a bit larger than 1" to 1 foot; I think they may have been meant for dolls rather than dollhouses.
Here are the items in profile, to give a sense of their proportions. The pieces average between 2 and 3 inches long.
Some close-ups reveal wonderful details.
Yet another ham, this one very fancy.
A fishy entrée.
Lobster and eggs in spinach.
In a similar scale and dating from about the same time period as the French dinner sets is this lovely German-made box of cakes and sweets. The box label depicts two little girls playing store.
Inside, still in their original papers, are an assortment of plaster cakes, pastries and other treats that look good enough to eat.
Some close-ups of the delicious-looking contents:
Dollhouse cakes were made in such a range of styles over the years that collecting them can be a mini hobby in itself. Here are some more antique German cakes, shown below in an old dollhouse pastry shop and grocery store. They are of varying materials including plaster and composition, circa the late 1900s - 1920s.
This tiny cake has the word “Germany” impressed on one side.
This assortment of plaster cakes came with a 1910s grocery store, and includes a cherry pie and a Christmas pudding (which seems to be a Kaybot piece which has found its way here!)
For a break from the sweet stuff, here’s a lovely German made display of wax fruit. Measuring 3 inches tall, it dates to about 1900. The stand is painted metal.
This next set of miniature foods is in a somewhat more realistic style. Still sealed in its original box, it dates circa the 1930s, and most of the pieces are made of a composition type material. Four glass plates hold a selection of appetizer and dessert items including fruit, cheeses wrapped in foil, crème horns, and caviar on toast.
Speaking of toast, one of the classics in dollhouse form was made by Gerlach of Germany in the 1920s: this set of four slices of composition toast in its own soft metal rack. The whole piece is 1 ½ inches long.
Going forward a few decades to the 1940s and 1950s, we find dollhouse food manufacturing spreading from Germany and France to the United States, where the Playtown Products Company of New York provided a wide range of items to stock its miniature stores. Bakery, grocery, meat market, and soda fountain foods were supplied in painted plaster and sold with playsets or as individual accessory packets.
For the Playtown Bakery, this set offered a braided bread loaf, cake, and doughnuts.
The Meat Market’s accessory pack featured hot dogs, a roast chicken, and a steak.
Playtown also made sets of miniature foods for dollhouse use, like the one shown below:
These loose items came with the Playtown Luncheonette, a soda fountain/snack bar playset.
For some reason (perhaps the Beatrix Potter influence again) I prefer the primitive style of all these antique and vintage pieces to our modern, hyper-realistic dollhouse food. Even though today's amazingly crafted pieces look so authentic, these crude-by comparison miniatures have a special charm of their own. And, after all, they fooled the mice in the story, so they must look real enough!