By Myra Lee Adams Goff
The Sophienburg Museum celebrates the Christmas season by presenting an exhibit of dollhouses, old toys and dolls, all reminiscent of our Christmas Past. Dollhouses appeared on the scene all over the world hundreds of years ago. In their beginning, they were not toys; they were much too expensive to allow children to play with. Dollhouses were actually works of art, just like paintings, sculptures and any other art form.
They were at one time, present in royal palaces and homes of rich aristocrats. Precisely constructed details obviously called for high prices that only the rich could afford. Very old examples of dollhouses can be now found in museums and antique stores. Now when you think about it, it’s probably because the dollhouses weren’t toys, that they survived.
Few toys survive the agony of childhood. My Shirley Temple doll never looked the same after I cut off all her curls. Of course, she never made the display cases.
Nuremberg, Germany and Paris, France, were best known for dollhouse production. Often, they were gifts of the groom to his bride. Now get this, these gifts were to replicate the home from which she came. It was supposed to keep her from being homesick. Don’t laugh. That may work, because children and adults alike, when playing with a dollhouse, imagine that they are there. Children put little people in the house and they become the characters that they create.
According to collectors, the most famous of all dollhouses is now in Windsor Palace. It is the Queen Mary’s House given to the queen by her subjects for helping them during a war. Carpets, furniture and wall paper are exact copies of items used during the reign of Queen Mary. Some unusual items in the house are a collection of 300 miniature books by famous authors and a gramophone that plays, “God Save the Queen.” The cellar is stocked with are real bottles of wine and the kitchen and bath have hot and cold running water. Famous houses like these are often on display in museums.
I have to admit that the Sophienburg is not exactly Windsor Palace, but let’s get to what we have to show in the Museum. After entering the foyer, there is the Bill and Nan Dillen house given by this very generous couple in New Braunfels, years ago. They are both deceased, but their generous gifts to New Braunfels live on. This very large house was used as a display for their antique doll furniture. Each room in the three-story house represents a different style of furnishings. The first floor shows furnishings of the 1870s, using furniture of wood with original blue silk upholstery. The klismos-style chairs are based on an antique Greek model popular with early German furniture makers. Also, present in the library is furniture made of cast iron used for both miniature and real furniture in Germany.
The second floor, features more functional furniture from about 1919, emphasizing usefulness and craftsmanship. The third-floor attic has recycled furniture, from around
1935. People would often make dollhouse furniture from discarded items found around the house. Cigar boxes, tin cans and clothespins were repurposed into useful “arts and crafty” items. This house is a magnificent beginning for the rest of the display.
Go into the Museum and there are two after the turn-of-century houses, the Stobaugh-Reeves house and the Roby-Hall House. The Stobaugh-Reeves House was constructed in the 1920s by the grandfather of Janet Reeves for her mother, Betty Zauel Stobaugh. Much of the furnishings were purchased in Germany. The old-fashioned stove is really a work of art. My grandmother had a stove that looked very much like this iron creation. On the dining room table, there are tiny pewter dishes. In the bedroom is the tiniest chamber pot that I have ever seen. We all know the function of the chamber pot. And aren’t we glad that they are a thing of the past.
Historical events did not allow for the production of dollhouses between World War I and World War II. After World War II, doll houses were increasingly mass produced, thereby making them less expensive and more available to the public. They became the toy of choice for little girls. I am very proud to share my 1934 dollhouse with the exhibit. It was built for me by my grandfather, A.C. Moeller. He was a builder of many buildings in downtown New Braunfels as well as houses all over town. I can recognize houses built by him because he built using the craftsmen style. My house is that style so I am well-acquainted with it.
My two-story doll house represents the 1930s era in many ways. Complete with hardwood floors and electric lights, the six-room dollhouse now contains more recently made furniture, as all of the original furnishing were made of wood and deteriorated. I couldn’t move the doll house outside because it was too big, but I could move the furniture. I would set up villages under the shrubs and now I store the furnishings only in my brain. The indoor bathroom is one of the most interesting with its claw-footed bathtub. The original tub was “built in” and so this claw-footed model goes back in time to the 1900s.
Most of the other houses in the museum are incorporated into the individual displays. We skip to the 1960s, when handmade went to factory-made. In the 1980s and 90s, tin and plastic became the material of choice and dollhouses now come in kits. Disney characters have moved into the houses.
Throughout the museum there are other collections. The indoor cabin in the museum is all decked out with old dolls, toys and a fine collection of antique children’s rocking chairs.
Once again, the Sophienburg will celebrate St. Nicolas Eve on Monday, December 5th. This will be your opportunity to visit the Museum at the same time and for the same price. The price is $5.00 a family. Due to space, there will be two shows only, one at 6:00 and one at 7:30 p.m. You need to call the museum at 830-629-1572 to make a reservation for your family visit. St. Nicholas will make a visit, teach some German, sing songs and then have treats afterwards. Only 35 children will be allowed for each of the two programs, so make your reservation soon. Hope to see you there.