Beloved Boulle - A glimpse of two dolls' house furniture factories in Waltershausen
by Swantje Köhler
A Boulle water dispenser. It was common in former times for high society to have one in the dining room. (Leipold collection)
Of all dolls' house furniture, the so-called “Boulle” furniture is the most loved. By this we understand furniture decorated with gold printing, which collectors refer to in this way after the French cabinetmaker of the Baroque period André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732).
André-Charles Boulle’s masterpieces produced for the French court, with their sumptuous multi-coloured marquetry in metals, ebony and semi-precious stones, are far distant from the sometimes homely pieces of dolls’ furniture with their ornamentation of gilt curlicues. Soon after the Biedermeier period, there was already a demand for furniture with “Boulle marquetry”. Especially in France, high-quality pieces in Boulle style were produced. So it is not surprising that, at the Universal German Industrial Exhibition of 1854 in Munich, “round tables in Boulle work with tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl and enamel” were offered by an exhibitor from Dresden.
Because here in the dolls' house field, Boulle decoration was often added to furniture of pure Biedermeier form, the term “Boulle furniture” in the world of collecting automatically means “Biedermeier furniture”. However, this “gilt printing” is found later as well, for example in the Art Nouveau style, or in the 1920s. Therefore, it will be clearly stated here: “Boulle” refers to a technique, not to a style of furniture!
A dolls' house room from the Biedermeier time furnished with Kestner furniture. (Landricina-collection)
Occasionally, the term “Duncan Phyfe” appears, as used by Vivien Greene in her first dolls' house book to refer to dolls' furniture adorned with gilt printing. This refers to a cabinetmaker of that name, who was born in Scotland in 1768, and emigrated to the USA in 1784, where he produced furniture in Neoclassical style. Sometimes American collectors go so far as to refer to all furniture with gold print generally as “Biedermeier”, even when it shows typical characteristics of Art Nouveau.
The term “Waltershausen”
Frequently, these gilt-printed pieces of furniture are called simply “Waltershausen”, the name of a small town in Thuringia where the factories which produced this furniture were found. In much the same way, various styles of pottery are called generically Delft, Limoges or Staffordshire after the towns or regions where they are made, and in the dolls' house world, Grödnertal and Lauscha are used generically for dolls and glass items made in the regions of those names.
A Schneegass glass cabinet. (Leipold collection)
The late English collector and researcher Vivien Greene had the opportunity, as widow of the famous author Graham Greene, to visit East Germany when it was still behind the Iron Curtain, and to look at the wonderful sample books of the dolls' house furniture of Johann Daniel Kestner and the Schneegass firm. In exchange for some volumes of fine art and the works of her husband, she was presented with official microfilms of these sample books. Mrs Greene explained in her books that she had “discovered the actual names of the makers of these sabre-legged chairs and marble-topped tables in the late Regency style. The manufactures were mostly centred on Waltershausen-bei-Gotha [therefore] the furniture is referred to generically as ‘Waltershausen’."
Unfortunately, Vivien Greene never managed to publish her discoveries, but made the information available to some other dolls' house researchers, and thus the name of Schneegass as the firm which produced most of this furniture appeared in the literature in the 1980s and 1990s (although it was sometimes misspelled* as Schneegas). Other companies also made furniture with gilt printing too, for example, the firms of Richard Auerbach, Delling & Sohn, and Emil Mende, all in Eppendorf.
Whether this sofa with decorated red leather upholstery was made by Kestner, Schneegass, or another factory isn’t certain. (Leipold collection)
The dolls' furniture of J. D. Kestner and the firm of Schneegass
Portrait of Johann Daniel Kestner. (Swantje-Koehler-Verlag archive)
Johann Daniel Kestner (1787-1858) is best known as a doll maker of genius, but he was also a shrewd businessman, who in 1845, at his birthplace, the restaurant “To the Moors” in Waltershausen, vowed to successfully start producing dolls' furniture from then on.
The Kestner doll factory in Waltershausen. The dolls' house furniture was made in another building. (Swantje-Koehler-Verlag archive)
In the same year his nephew, Johann David Schneegass, a cabinetmaker who was his sister’s son, started producing dolls' furniture in Waltershausen too. When his two sons returned from the mandatory journeying period for artisans, he registered his company as "J. D. Schneegass und Söhne (and sons)" in 1863.
View of the factory buildings of the J. D. Schneegass & Sons company in 1873. On the right is the pavilion and a small part of the park gifted to the people of Waltershausen by Daniel Kestner. (Museum Schloss Tenneberg)
Ad for the Schneegass company at the Leipzig Fair: "D. Schneegass & Sons, Factory for Toy Furniture and Workboxes. Waltershausen bei Gotha." (Museum Schloss Tenneberg)
It is presumed that a close business relationship existed between the two dolls' furniture factories. Too many indications speak to this. Not only the close kinship of the owners, but also the fact that both companies sometimes had identical furniture in their ranges at the same time. It is said in the research that the firm of Schneegass took over the Kestner dolls' furniture factory soon after J. D. Kestner’s death in 1858, only 13 years after he ventured into furniture production. This could also explain the similarity of the dolls' furniture and the fact that, in a Schneegass catalogue, under a typical Schneegass number, there is sometimes a number from the Kestner Company in smaller writing.
The little columns of this Schneegass writing desk are made of ivory. (Leipold collection)
Collectors may also be familiar with the name Gebrüder Schneegass, introduced in 1913 when Adolf und Oskar Schneegass ran the company. For a few years prior to this (1909-1913), the company had gone under the name ‘Vereinigte Spielwarenfabriken Waltershausen GmbH’ (‘United Toy Factories of Waltershausen LLC).
The Kestner and Schneegass companies made other kinds of furniture besides Boulle, shown in the same catalogues. However, this article focuses only on Boulle furniture.
Daniel Kestner devised a special numbering system for his dolls' furniture. Each category of furniture received a letter of the alphabet, for example an “A” for chairs and piano stools, “B” for dressers, “C” for tables and “D” for sofas. This alphabet runs without gaps up to “W” for clocks and plant stands. In front of the letters stands a smaller, superscript number, which must indicate something about the series. After all, the very first furniture pictured in the sample books has no prefixed number. For series 8, it is stated that the furniture was decorated with gilt printing. This was thus the first “Boulle” furniture from the firm of J. D. Kestner! After each letter there is another number, which indicates something about the size. Most furniture was available in six different sizes.
The numbering of the Schneegass firm, however, only consisted of a consecutive number.
Extract from the Kestner sample book. Here we observe that one piece of furniture, 'Comoden' (dressers), was made in six different sizes. (Museum Schloss Tenneberg)
A dark Boulle sideboard from the Schneegass sample book, showing the double numbering: it has the Schneegass number 1112/1 and the Kestner number 17G/1. (Museum Schloss Tenneberg)
Etagère with mirrored back from Kestner’s second run, marked on the back with the Kestner numbering system: 2 = second run ; R= etagères ; 4 = size 4 of 6. (From the book: The Goodman House Museum)
A chair in baroque style in a Kestner sample book. (Museum Schloss Tenneberg)
One fact contradicts the theory that the Kestner factory was taken over by the Schneegass firm early on. There is an invoice from the J. D. Kestner firm from the year 1885 for “a crate of furniture” with the numbers 3 A 2 and 4 C 2, so chairs and tables of the third and fourth series in Size 2, as we can see from the letters. Thus, probably the Kestner dolls' furniture factory still existed even at that time.
We can only speculate about the relationship between the two dolls' furniture factories, as unfortunately there isn’t any evidence yet.
A Boulle sofa with blue upholstery - on the base are the numbers 43D/2:
Hidden between the pages of a Schneegass catalogue in the museum at the castle Tenneberg is an envelope containing a small sensation. On several sheets can be seen unused prints for more sample books of dolls' furniture. So we discovered, for example, that there were several previously unknown series of white Boulle furniture. Thus it becomes clear not only that all sample books were produced with the original printing blocks for the subsequent dolls furniture, but we also learn how such printing plates were assembled. We now know that the patterns for 24 "Boulle" chairs were printed at one time on white or dark-painted sheets of wood, and were then cut out and glued together. A beautiful example of serial mass production. This explains the popularity of this mode of production, which was easy and cheap yet conjured up a big impact.
Remnant of a prepared sheet for a sample book page showing parts of a secretary in Neo-Gothic style. (Museum Schloss Tenneberg)
Whether the printing presses were actually in the factories themselves is unknown, but seems rather unlikely. It is also possible that the prepared painted thin wooden sheets were taken to a lithographic business. Some dolls' furniture factories, such as the company Paul Leonhardt from Eppendorf, explicitly stressed that they had their own lithographic presses. For Kestner and Schneegass this is so far not known. However, in the pictures drawn during a factory visit in 1898, no printing presses can be seen.
The following pictures showing an inside view of the Schneegass factory were published in the German family magazine “Die Gartenlaube” (The Gazebo) of 1898.
Here workers are preparing the sheets of wood for the dolls' house furniture. (Swantje-Köhler-Verlag Archives)
Cutting out the pieces.(Swantje-Köhler-Verlag Archives)
Strips cut to the right length.(Swantje-Köhler-Verlag Archives)
Gluing parts together (above and below).(Swantje-Köhler-Verlag Archives)
The gold trim is applied to the furniture.(Swantje-Köhler-Verlag Archives)
Varnishing the furniture. (Swantje-Köhler-Verlag Archives)
Packing the dolls' house furniture in boxes.(Swantje-Köhler-Verlag Archives)
A gorgeous Boulle furniture set shown in the Kestner sample book. (Museum Schloss Tenneberg)
For the sample books, the patterns were sometimes printed on paper painted with an identical wood grain, instead of on sliced and painted wood. The individual pieces of furniture were cut out, glued onto a blank page of the sample book, and the missing pieces painted in. Difficult perspectives have been simplified, so that the furniture shown in the sample books does not always match up to the real pieces in every detail. Even the original gilt paper trims were glued to the right places on the furniture. Most even have the original fabrics for the upholstery, and so we can see how colourful today’s beautifully faded fabrics once were. We mustn’t forget that these were children’s toys, and above all they had to please children. The sample books are very important evidence of how the furniture looked in completely pristine condition, as we almost never see it now.
A set of furniture in Neo-Gothic style in the Kestner sample-books. (Museum Schloss Tenneberg)
Although it is now known that Boulle furniture got its actual effect only through the gorgeous gilt printing, that they were quite easily produced, and left the factories in huge quantities – in 1898 it was said that millions were produced annually in Waltershausen – it’s impossible not to be amazed on finally seeing the Non-Plus-Ultra of all Boulle lovers: white Boulle furniture. There are only a very few examples of this in collections around the whole world.
Collection of white Boulle furniture. Photo © Sondra Krueger
White Boulle chairs. Photo © Sondra Krueger
It doesn’t diminish one’s enthusiasm either to see that on one sheet the same very rare chair was printed 24 times, and that there were hundreds or thousands of these sheets.
This unused sheet of decorated paper was prepared to glue into a sample book. It shows parts of gilt printing on white for a buffet. (Museum Schloss Tenneberg)
A very rare set of white Boulle in the Kestner sample book. (Museum Schloss Tenneberg)
Side pieces for a chair of the same design as in the white Boulle sample page above, but here the design is printed in white on woodgrain. (Museum Schloss Tenneberg)
Boulle dolls' house furniture always fascinates, even if now the strong blue of the fabric has faded, the silk has frayed, and the gilt printing is worn away in some places. Its grand character still shines, like all dolls' furniture decorated in the Boulle technique, and it remains a highlight in any dolls' house.
White Boulle sofa and footstool. Photo © Sondra Krueger
*Written in more traditional German letters, the name is Schneegaß. When written with the Roman (or English) alphabet only, ß becomes ss.
Thanks to Herr Dr Reinecke of the Schloss Tenneberg Museum in Waltershausen for his friendly permission to photograph and publish the catalogue pages shown here. Thanks to the collectors Landricina and Leipold for allowing me to photograph their Boulle items, and to Sondra Kruger for generously permitting use of her photographs of white Boulle.
A version of this article was originally published, in German, in Ciesliks Puppenmagazin, 2/07. This version was translated and edited by Rebecca Green.