'Earned by the needle and skill of its little owner': an early Victorian dolls' house
by Alice Sage
The collection of the V&A Museum of Childhood includes a remarkable dolls’ house in a cabinet, furnished by Mrs Ann Killer and her daughters in the 1830s, currently on display in the exhibition Small Stories: At home in a dolls’ house. The cabinet is huge, over 1.6 metres wide, on bold cabriole legs and glittering with gilded Chinoiserie. Open the lacquered doors, and a four-room dolls’ house appears, tastefully furnished with the needlework of the family’s four girls, produced under the watchful eye of their mother.
In ‘The Promise’, a children’s story from 1830, sisters Amelia and Isabella ruefully consider their nursery: “Their baby house was in total confusion… the dishes were left unwashed in the drawing room; while the kitchen exhibited a scene of disorder… The caps, tippets, frocks and petticoats which the little work-women had projected and begun for their dolls, were left unfinished and partly lost… with cotton, silk, tape, bits of work, of lace, of satin, and a hundred other things which ingenious girls get together”.
I find this description of miniature chaos captivating, but readers of the 1830s might think the mistresses of this dolls’ house had been sorely negligent. The Girls’ Own Book of 1833 exhorted young girls to demonstrate in their dolls’ house the skills and aptitudes they would need as a future wife, mother and housekeeper. “Every girl should learn how to be useful”, it stressed.
Having a dolls’ house to furnish could motivate girls in their endeavours: “her mother can promise her a small bed and pillow as soon as she has sewed a small patch quilt for them… and thus go on till the whole contents of the baby-house are earned by the needle and skill of its little owner. Thus the task of learning to sew will become a pleasure”, advised the Beecher sisters a bit later in the century.
It is said that the father of the family, surgeon John Egerton Killer, commissioned this cabinet as his four daughters’ passion for creating miniature furniture threatened to over-run the house. Their handiwork certainly shows dedication. The walls are papered with exquisite full-sized patterns, featuring birds of paradise and gold fern leaves. Twenty-one dolls in hand-made costumes include rustling ladies in layers of lace and silk, a clutch of children with ribbons in their curled hair, and a staff of servants – the footmen wear red jackets and fur trousers.
The Kitchen in the Killer Cabinet
A footman in red jacket and fur trousers
Two footmen and the cook in the kitchen
Betsy the housekeeper
The governess with a young child
Downstairs in the parlour a pair of sofas made of card are covered in patterned velvet with square tasselled cushions. Instructions how to make items like this can be found in innumerable books and magazines, such as the Landells’ 'Girl’s Own Toy-Maker'.
The parlour of the Killer Cabinet, with the governess and children
Embroidered easy chairs and footstool, with the needlecase worktable
Detail of the parlour of the Killer Cabinet
More unusual are the round easy chairs with cross-stitched patterns. Back- and arm-rests made of card are wrapped round soapstone bases, before the whole is upholstered with satin and embroidery. Matching footstools are embroidered in complementing colours and embellished with pins. The ingenuity and consistency of vision can be seen as the same colours and patterns repeat across different items of furniture. A shop-bought upright piano has an inserted needlework panel, and a pair of pole screens are finished with flowers and fringing.
[Apologies for the poor quality of these images - I received them only within a Word document. I have included them as they show details of the bases and legs which are not visible in the photos of the drawing room below.]
The drawing room of the Killer Cabinet, as displayed at the V&A Museum of Childhood
Another view of the drawing room, as displayed at the V&A Museum of Childhood
Detail of the drawing room of the Killer Cabinet, as displayed on tour at the National Building Museum, Washington DC. Photo © Susan Hale.
As well as developing good taste in home furnishings, young girls were expected to become consummate dress-makers. Miniature garments were the recommended curriculum, and it was common for girls the age of five to cut and sew shirts for their dolls. The bedroom of the Killer Cabinet house contains a beautiful satin-lined basket of tiny clothes, including a lace-trimmed christening gown, aprons, and minute knitted socks. The small scale didn’t prevent the Killer girls from showing off their pulled thread work, pin tucks and pleats.
Clothes basket and dressing table from the Killer Cabinet bedroom
Killer Cabinet bedroom, with the basket of clothes on the left front
The refined nature of the needlework undertaken in the Killer family home in Stockport was in stark contrast to the textile trades driving the town around them. By 1840 ‘Cottonopolis’, taking in Manchester and Stockport, was a region of cotton-producing towns experiencing a boom from mechanisation. Against the clatter of looms and cranking of the mills, middle-class ladies’ needlework was elevated to an art, and social grace.
The drawing room of the Tate Baby House, also in the Small Stories exhibition, is furnished for a tea party in 1820. The lady of the house has displayed a spinning wheel (left) in the corner. Objects like these, once essential in providing linens for wealthy households, had by 1800 become a mark of femininity rather than labour. They may occasionally be used to spin fine coloured silks for embroidery, but ladies were almost certainly sending out for cloth.
Needlecase / pincushion in the form of a piano stool
Several mass-produced items of furniture in the Killer cabinet playfully introduce sewing tools and accessories into the dolls’ house. Novelty needlecases and pincushions appeared in all sorts of guises. One little piano stool, about the size of a matchbox, is made of painted tin topped with an embroidered cushion and has a mirror inside the lid. This would have been bought with a packet of needles inside – the cushion on top makes a handy pincushion. In the dolls’ house, the box is a stool, the needles have become knitting needles, and five or six rows of stitches have been worked with silk thread as yarn.
Often exchanged as “souvenirs of affection” between girls, these novelty sewing accessories could be bought in shops or from travelling salesmen. The Killer daughters’ collection also includes a silk and card work table which doubled as a needlecase and pin holder. A later addition is a pleasing chess table which hid a tape-measure coiled inside. Pressing one of the chess pieces activates the recoil spring!
Needlecase and pin holder in the form of a work table.
Chess table measuring tape.
Killer Cabinet parlour: the needlecase work table is on the left next to the round easy chair. Photo © Susan Hale.
Nearly all young women were taught needlework in the 1830s and 1840s, but for those lucky enough to have a dolls’ house, these skills weren’t just focussed on their future homes and lives. The daughters of John and Ann Killer used their skills, ingenuity and needles to create together a beautiful house to enjoy and display.
The touring exhibition 'Small Stories: at home in a dolls’ house' will be at Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, from 5 August 2017 – 7 January 2018 Sheffield, and then in Prague from February to June 2018.
Except where otherwise indicated, all photos are © V&A Museum of Childhood. Author Alice Sage was curator of Small Stories: at home in a dolls’ house at the V&A Museum of Childhood.