1890s Dunham's Cocoanut Dollhouse
by Tracy Harnish
When I first started collecting dollhouses and miniatures, one of the pieces I most longed for was the Dunham's Cocoanut Dollhouse, made in America in the 1890s.
The odd name betokens its origins: the house was originally a packing crate for Dunham's Cocoanut, a shredded confection used for baking, particularly as a cake topping. The 28 inch tall wooden crate originally would have held several boxes of this shredded coconut product, and the house served as an advertising premium.
The outside of the crate has impressed bricks and windows on each side, and is stamped "Dunham's Cocoanut Dollhouse" on both ends.
It appears the crates arrived in stores already papered inside, ready to be converted into a dollhouse once they were emptied and stood on end. The lithographed floor and wall papers are awash with details, including rugs, tile, and loads of Victorian bric a brac like potted ferns, pianos, paintings, china shelves, even a taxidermied moose head and an aquarium full of fish.
And, lest we forget this house was essentially a marketing device, a cupboard lithographed on a kitchen wall is stocked full of tiny Dunham's Cocoanut boxes!
Dunham’s Cocoanut Dollhouse is an outstanding example of a very early marketing premium. In addition to acquiring the house itself, children could clip proofs of purchase from cocoanut boxes and then send away for individual cardboard pieces of furniture, each emblazoned with the Dunham's logo. A Victorian child would have had to really like shredded coconut (or had a very indulgent family) in order to acquire enough pieces to completely furnish the house. This furniture is now exceedingly rare: I've only ever seen one set, and it was in a museum. Consequently, lucky Dunham's house owners fit out their homes with whatever they can find that seems suitable. Mine features a mix of old pieces, including early 1900s German bedroom, dining, and parlor sets, along with lots of interesting odds and ends. Let’s take a tour.
The top floor of the house is a bedroom, complete with lace curtained windows. A 4 inch Limbach doll and her baby brother play with toys on the floor, including a tiny, functional Punch & Judy puppet show. The bed has its original coverlet, and a matching wardrobe with a mirrored door completes the furnishings.
Down one floor we find the gentlemen’s parlor, where a German dollhouse father relaxes on the sofa with his newspapers. A cast metal stove warms the room, and may be making the father sleepy: he appears ready to doze off. The lithographed piano is visible on the wall just behind the stove.
Next is the dining room, with the most wonderfully detailed wallpapers in the house: this is where we find the moose head and aquarium. The buffet, table, and chairs are from the same 1900s German set as the bed and wardrobe.
At the bottom of the house is the kitchen with its cupboard full of cocoanut boxes. I turned it into a ladies’ parlor instead with this wonderful set of bent reed chairs and table. The German red-stained marble topped furniture finishes the room nicely, giving it a high Victorian feel.
No one is really sure how the houses were distributed after the cocoanut was sold: they were likely difficult to come by, and they remain hard to find today. Considering their original function as shipping crates, most remaining examples are in rough shape now, with water stains, torn or missing paper, and a prominent crack down the back, caused by the joining of the two planks used to fashion the crate's bottom. Even so, the house with its fantastically detailed wallpapers is a treasure, providing a peek into late Victorian domestic life.