Inside the Collection

Miss Vanderfield’s Doll’s House

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2008/121/1 Janet Vanderfield’s doll’s house, 1942. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

It was a Tuesday morning. I was working on a PowerPoint presentation – a training session for our Museum volunteers, a couple of meetings were scheduled, labels were due at our Print Media department, public enquiries needed attention and the never-diminishing pile of acquisition documentation beckoned, then the phone rang. A softly-spoken older woman, Janet Vanderfield, wanted to know if we’d be interested in having her doll’s house. I immediately created a list in my head of the doll’s houses already in the Museum’s collection. There’s a modern one by Dinosaur Designs ; the 1930s one fashioned from an agricultural machinery packing case used on a property near Gunnedah, in North-west NSW; the tin-printed Mettoy one from the 1950s; one made from match sticks; a charming carved one by the British toymaker Yootha Rose; and the fabulous, over-the-top, 20-room Bosdyk doll’s house acquired last year and at least a couple more. We had lots already!

Nevertheless, I asked if it would be possible for her to take some photos of it and email them to me. No email, no problem, prints through the post would be fine. And would you happen to have any photos of yourself as a girl with the doll’s house? I always check, just in case. You’ll have a look. Excellent. I’ll look forward to seeing them.

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Janet Vanderfield aged 7 in 1942. Image courtsey Janet Vanderfield

A couple of weeks passed and a small envelope arrived with the requested photos. On top was a copy of a grainy photo of shy, 7-year-old Janet Vanderfield taken on Christmas Day in 1942 in the backyard of her Hurlstone Park (a Sydney suburb) home with her impressive Christmas present, a fine mock-Tudor doll’s house. It had been carefully carried out into the sunshine and Janet dressed in her best white voile dress for photos to send to grandma and the aunties in Scotland.

The other photos in the envelope Janet had taken herself depicted the doll’s house and its furniture, a microcosm of 1940s upper middle-class domestic life when entertainment came from the wireless in the lounge room and refrigeration was provided by the ice chest in the kitchen.

I learnt later that the doll’s house had been purchased unfurnished from the famous Sydney toy and model shop, Walther & Stevenson Ltd. Over a 5-year period Janet would often travel into “town” on the tram with her mother or auntie attired in hats and gloves and go into Walther & Stevenson’s to select a piece of furniture for the doll’s house. This phenomenon of the child collector was common in the 1930s and 40s, some children built up impressive lead toy farm sets and others Hornby train layouts.

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2008/121/1-14:16 Doll’s house lounge room furniture. Can you spot the missing fire iron? Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Only special “careful” friends were allowed to play with Janet’s doll’s house. Auntie made the curtains, bedspread and cushions, and father put in the chunky 1940s electric lights. When she had outgrown the doll’s house Janet’s mother had tried to encourage her to give it to a nearby children’s home but Janet had received so much enjoyment gradually collecting the furniture she couldn’t part with it. The doll’s house remained in Janet’s possession for 66 years, immaculately maintained throughout her life and over that time only one small piece, a fireplace fire iron, had been lost. Although tempted to add contemporary pieces to the doll’s house she resisted.

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2008/121/1 Interior shot of the doll’s house with ‘Doll’s House Dolly’. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Because doll’s houses are bulky items to store once children have outgrown them they are not often kept and relatively few survive. If they do it’s extremely unusual for the original loose furniture to be retained as it’s always vulnerable to separation, change and loss over time. For Janet, an only child who never married, there was never the temptation to let her own children or nieces and nephew play with the doll’s house. It remained intact, a time capsule of Australian domestic social history and childhood in the early 1940s.

For Janet to give up her precious doll’s house with all its memories of her childhood and family must have been a wrench. I carefully documented her memories of it, and when it was chosen for display in the new acquisitions showcase in the Museum’s foyer, I invited Janet in and photographed it with her. She was delighted and was grateful to me for making the whole process of relinquishing her doll’s house easier.

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Janet Vanderfield with her doll’s house on display in the Museum in 2008

The Museum has a large collection of toys, purchased in the 1980s, from an adult collector. They are a superb group of mainly tin toys and Hornby trains which have great visual appeal but they have no stories or memories associated with their use. Accordingly, Miss Vanderfield’s doll’s house was a wonderful acquisition and I feel privileged to have been involved in recording and perpetuating the memory of its use.

P.S. Later that year I went on to acquire yet another doll’s house with a completely different story and memories. It was made by staff at The Sydney Morning Herald and presented to eleven-year-old Elaine Sellers in 1946. Elaine’s father, Charles Sellers (Charlie), had always promised to make her a doll’s house. He was a very popular staff member at the ‘Herald’ working in the Compositing Section of the famous Sydney newspaper. After he tragically died of Malaria in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Thailand in 1945 his colleagues at the ‘Herald’ decided to do something for Elaine and made the doll’s house. As a Curator I see my role increasingly being about recording these types of memories and stories.

There are other posts about the Bosdyk Doll’s House

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

2 responses to “Miss Vanderfield’s Doll’s House

  • Well done, Margaret. This is a wonderful post. Many people pontificate about the need for narrative in museums; you are actually doing it par excellence. I hope you plan to write a book on dolls’ houses.

  • Thanks Debbie, stories or narratives certainly add so much to objects especially toys. A book might well be a possibility, perhaps not one specificially on dolls’ houses but on toys generally in the Australian context.

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