How far to go? Restoring an old German Puppenstube or dolls’ room
by Edel Sheridan-Quantz
This little German room and the set of old manufactured parlour furniture that came with it was one of those bargains that are simply too good to resist. I have a special weakness for very small dolls' houses and rooms, and this room is only 41cm wide in front, 33.5cm at the back, 17.5cm deep and 18cm high. The furniture is a little bit bigger than 1:16 scale.
I suspected that the brown and orange papers, oddly combined with pastel pink and blue gloss paint, were not original to the room. They certainly clashed wildly with the greenupholstered, mahogany-coloured sofa, chair, table and clock. At worst, there would be nothing original left under the newer papers and I could revitalise the room by repapering it more appropriately. But tentative picking at the edges of the 1960s (or 1970s?) papers revealed that there was at least one layer of older paper preserved beneath.
So I wet the papers using a broad paintbrush and after letting them soak for a while began to scrape carefully – this semi-wrecked stage of redecorating is dramatic and oddly satisfying at any scale.
The newer structured floorpaper in several shades of brown had been pasted on over a delightful black and cream paper with bluey-green highlights. Someone had apparently tried to scrape it off before the repapering, but fortunately seems to have given up quite quickly. And towards the front of the box an older layer of matte paint in the same bluey-green shade as the highlights on the old floorpaper was revealed beneath the newer paper. The paste (or animal glue?) had been liberally applied and was very sticky and brown, leaving extensive marks on the old floorpaper.
Two older papers emerged beneath the top layer of wallpaper: a very fragile blue and white tile-effect paper, and beneath that a smooth and slightly shiny green and white paper with a pattern of tall rectangles topped by a simple geometric border in two shades of green on a white base. The border was an integral part of the paper.
Grubby and damaged as they were, the old papers harmonised beautifully – and were a perfect match for the old parlour furniture that had come with the room. I think the room and its furniture probably date to around 1920.
This type of furniture is quite common in Germany and was probably cheaply mass-produced. I have similar sets in my Triang 50 (below left) and a very small old dolls’ room (the table here is my own home-made replacement).
Back to the restoration process: I was able to remove most of the sticky brown paste stains from the floor and walls using some kitchen roll, dampened with warm water. I rubbed it firmly (but not too firmly!) with circular movements until the paste had almost entirely vanished. Both papers have marks and holes, but I was pretty happy with the overall effect.
Next I scraped off the pink gloss from the pilasters at the front of the room, and also got most of the pastel blue gloss off the front of the base. A few patches were very resistant to scraping (with the same scraper as the one used to remove the wallpaper), so I decided to leave them as a record of the room’s transformation. I haven’t done anything about the blue pastel gloss on the outside of the room yet. I scraped off a bit beneath the window, but the result wasn’t encouraging, as you can see from the picture below. The blue looks quite pleasant, so I will leave it for the time being.
The muslin curtain that came with the room matched the newer papers and I assume it is contemporary with them. It was much wider than the tall narrow window opening – perhaps to give the room a more “modern” look. I could see from the marks on the original paper around the window that it must originally have had an inset window frame, probably of card, as can be seen in many antique German dolls’ houses and rooms. So I used some 1mm card to make a new window frame to a design fairly common in early twentieth century German buildings, and painted it with several coats of off-white water-soluble paint to strengthen it. I made new curtains out of an old cotton hankie, and hung them using a piece of wooden moulding. This is also a feature common to older German dolls’ houses and rooms. A mark on the paper above the window indicated that this was how the curtains were originally fixed.
There was a piece gouged out of the right-hand wall of the room above the border – I filled this with some wood filler and painted it with water-soluble paint to match the background of the border. It’s not perfectly smooth, but I wanted it to be visible as an “intervention”.
The little room was now ready to receive its (probably) original furniture again – but it needed a few more bits and pieces to give it more interest. I added an old treen tea set from the Iron Mountains (Erzgebirge); three old German “Putz” dogs; a picture made from a tiny old lithographed scrap mounted on old card and framed with a piece of old gold paper trim; and a bookshelf that I had made for another house and then replaced with something different. I sanded off my original oak varnish and re-did it in mahogany to match the old furniture. The candlestick and flacon are made of metal and glass beads and jewellery findings. The leather- and paper-bound books are also home-made. The shelves also contain a small china donkey from an incomplete fève nativity set and a hard plastic goose from the early 1950s – a German “margarine figure”. The goose is marked “Fri-Homa Eigelb” on the base, and is a giveaway advertising dried egg yolk from a company that also produced margarine.
This was a fairly simple restoration, as there was a lot of original paper left beneath the new ones, and the newer papers came off quite easily. I may try to source a reprint of the floorpaper at some stage, but for the time being I am very happy with my shabby but authentic little room.