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Dolls' Houses
Past & Present

A website and ezine about dolls' houses: antique, vintage and modern.
Plus furniture and accessories.

Issue 32 (March 2020)

A 1/6th scale Victorian style mansion: the drawing room

By Tara

I live in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and I've always loved miniatures.  And I've had mini dollhouses in the past, but admittedly, they are not things a 4 year old can play with. My dollhouse, or rather,  a collection of dollhouse rooms, is built to Playscale, 1/6th proportions, and is meant to represent a Victorian home of the 1850s/60s.

Anyway, a little history. Back in the mid 1990's when my daughter was young, a very dear (and very deluded) aunt gave her a very expensive Victorian Barbie doll .... too expensive for a 4 year old. I think it was well over 100 dollars. I suggested we keep this one in a box till she got older, as I was determined this Barbie would not share the fate of her sisters, who normally wound up naked and decapitated under the bed in 4 months. Gillian went along with it, in the beginning, but after awhile later informed me that it was sort of a boring agreement, and when would she ever get to play with her? Well .... I pondered it and said, Why don't we start making her a proper room to be in, a sort of presentation room with her own furniture and decorations and props? Gil loved the idea. Living in southern New Jersey, we were enthusiastic visitors to Cape May, and Gil was already very familiar with Victorian furniture, clothing and architecture. So we set up a work place in the dining room, and began the project. Which led to creating a Victorian Drawing Room, which led to a Front Parlor, which led to a Dining Room, which led to The Foyer, which led to The Library, which led to kitchens, bathrooms, servants quarters, an attic, a strong room, stables and a family cemetery plot. What Victorian mansion would be without one?

It turned out to be not so much a dollhouse as a series of presentation boxes large enough to accommodate the realistic proportions of Barbie and Victorian furniture. I went to Lowes and bought some plywood and hammered together a rectangular box that was 36 inches wide, 24 inches high and 24 inches deep. It seemed huge, but the honest reason I didn't attempt to cut it down and make it smaller is, I didn't own a good saw and really wasn't very handy, so Barbie got her huge room, and as it turned out the proportions really worked. Upper middle class Victorian homes were quite spacious, with very high ceilings frequently hitting 12 feet or more, and the length and depth really allowed me to realistically arrange the furniture in proper proportions.

So the monster project was born. We started with The Drawing Room. The wooden plywood walls were rough, so I papered  them over with the wall paper people use to smooth over real walls, I bought it at Lowes for $8. 95, something like that. I painted the walls plain, a sort of dull olive color, as at the time I didn't have a good wall paper with the right look, and plain painted walls were very common in the day. Wall paper was tremendously expensive to purchase and to put up (remember, 15 foot high ceilings) and the taste for it wasn't fully popularized until a little later in the century. I wanted my dollhouse to be set in the 1850s/60s. I figured eventually I'd find the right paper with the proper scale, and I did. But these are the early pictures.

Every stage of the creation I involved my daughter in as much as possible from design choices to the actual construction. I would devise a small easy project for her to accomplish, say, like cutting the bamboo flooring (which comes apart incredibly easily), or, when she was a little older, painting something with gold leaf. Or gluing the tiles on a fireplace, or sewing the edging on a curtain. One of the best parts of this experience was teaching my daughter about the old days, about how people lived back then, and, frankly, how much better women have it today.

We haunted Goodwills (thrift stores/op shops/charity shops), garage sales and flea markets for props and decorations, and loved going on "treasure hunts". We bought things online, too, and utilized plenty of 1/12 minis, as there is a definite overlap and all sizes of things worked, we even used traditional minis in the nursery, as the dolls had their own dollhouses and doll toys.

The floor of the drawing room (which you don't see here) is a bamboo floor mat. Almost all my floors have been covered with this. It looks just like real wooden floor boarding, is cheap, comes in a bunch of colors, brown, gray, tan, even black, and can be cut easily with a sturdy scissors. It's glued to a felt backing. The proportion is perfect for my bigger scale but could work for 1/12 as well, especially if you are doing an older colonial or Elizabethan house with wider planking. I also used these mats on another project to cover the walls and make a stable, but more on that later.

6th scale modern Victorian style drawing room

The carpeting is a fancy place mat I picked up at Goodwill.  I really lucked out on this one, it has a great carpet design look. But they are easy to find online and cheap. With a little luck you might find one that's small and detailed enough to match 1/12, even if you bought one and cut out the fancy center part and then sewed a little gold edging on it.

Admittedly, these pix are a little rough, they are among the first I took upon finishing the room, and I actually consider them "rehearsal" pix, as I find looking at a photo actually wakes you up to errors and discrepancies better than looking at things live. I don't know why, but it's always in a pic that I notice my mistakes!! Glue dripped, and I never noticed. Something's crooked, or there's fingerprints on a mirror, or whatever. I fix things up, and then take another round of pix, hopefully now with no mistakes in them.

What's a room without the dolls?

I tend to refer to this house as a Barbie Victorian mansion but it's really just a 12 inch Playscale doll house (or a collection of dolls), and you'd be surprised how many realistic character dolls, representing real people, are manufactured. I had no idea until I stumbled across them at flea markets and then started looking at stuff online. There's a Dick Cheney doll. There's Diana, Princess of Wales, of course. There's the Spice Girls. There's all the presidents. There's actress and comedian Rosie O' Donnell!!  Eventually I got them all. (The Spice Girls made wonderful kitchen maids!) I wanted an older, dignified man doll for the head of the household, and got an unboxed doll who turned out to be Winston Churchill, although he looks more like an old roué here than the Prime Minister of England. But, it works. He actually kind of looks like a 1900s saloon keeper and a real jerk, doesn't he? The woman is soap opera star perennial Susan Lucci, wearing an 1850s Victorian hoop skirt. I find a lot of Victorian homemade Barbie dresses in flea markets and Goodwills, God bless those grandmas. One thing I do with these dolls I must share ... taking their clothes on and off all the time is not easy, and some of the clothing (in order to make it look better fitting), I actually sewed onto the doll's body, so we simply swapped heads and bodies every time we wanted to change clothes. Lord knows I already HAD a bunch of headless Barbies to choose from (thank you, Gillian), so we dressed them up beautifully and put them in a shoe box and used them as needed, just popping the heads on and off.

The Mother and a maid in the background, I think it's a Spice Girl.

6th scale mother and maid dolls in Victorian style drawing room

The fireplace is a Buyer's Choice. I added translucent green mosaic squares for tiles (Hobby Lobby) and found 2 angel Christmas ornaments that I glued onto either side of the fireplace to pep up the Victorian look. The clock and matching vases were Goodwill finds.

Franklin Mint, by the way, has a fabulous line of gorgeous mini clocks of all historical eras. They are not cheap, but I have lucked out by occasionally finding them in Goodwill. I've used them in other rooms. 

Fireplace and table in 6th scale Victorian style drawing room

The table top was a pretty little Italian box, a flea market find. The chairs were a REAL bonanza ... they were sold by a company in China and took 4 months to arrive. As soon as I got them I wanted to order 4 more, but the site disappeared and I never found them again.

The cherub mirror is a marvelous little wall mirror from Italy I found in a junk store and painted it with gold leaf. It was originally brown plastic.The ceiling is regular wall paper that used to be sold in Home Depot and Lowes ... not so much any more, although you can get it online. It makes a terrific ceiling paper for Victorian mansions. I also used it for wainscoting and painted it gold.

Gold colour overmantel mirror with cupids in 6th scale Victorian drawing room

The windows are plate glass behind which I glued calendar scenes of pretty garden pics, but it turned out not to even matter, by the time I made the lace curtains and the drapes you barely see them.The curtains are just drapes sewn and Crazy Glued into place. I created a fancy bracket on top from a piece of wood and trimmed it with ball fringe. Victorians loved their wall treatments!

The bird cage I just picked up somewhere and placed it on a fancy little doodad table, which I made with a marble drinks coaster and a fancy little metal candy dish stand.  While I'm in Goodwill I'm always on the look out for marble coaster tops. They are perfect to create small occasional tables.

Birdcage in front of curtains in 6th scale Victorian style drawing room

Here you see the wallpaper painted gold for wainscoting more clearly. The organ is a music box - I later added tiny decorative gold trim, as well as more paintings on the wall.

Left side wall of drawing room showing gold-painted wainscoting and organ