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Article and Photos: YELDA BALER
Toys in history
Doll houses have been made since the 16th century. Exhibited in the museums of Europe and now in the Istanbul Toy Museum, those that have survived to our day are virtual documents of the culture of their time.
Remember how when we were kids we used to turn the inside of a cupboard or the area underneath a chair into a tiny house? Well, let’s look at another page out of our childhood. As you tour the Istanbul Toy Museum a childlike joy will bubble up inside you in front of every display. We enter the room at the top of the stairs on the third floor and find ourselves standing in front of a host of tiny houses and shops, some thirty, some fifty centimeters, high. When we bend down to take a closer look, we begin turning the pages of a 400-year-old history.
A SIGN OF WEALTH
One of the museum’s most valuable collections is that of the so-called ‘baby houses’, whose first appearance dates back to the 16th century. A hobby with wealthy families in Germany and Holland, these houses were not originally made as toys. Instead, a miniature model of a large mansion or estate was crafted, with exact copies in miniature of all its furnishings, and prominently displayed inside the house. All the accessories were produced down to the finest detail by highly skilled carpenters and glass and ceramics artists. Commissioned by wealthy families in the 17th and 18th centuries, these beautiful baby houses were the prized possessions of their owners and a symbol of affluence.
The most skilled builders of ‘baby houses’ were those in the German city of Nuremberg, where the middle class houses crafted especially in the 19th century masterfully reflected every architectural detail. In the wake of houses, the construction of ‘baby’ kitchens and shops soon began to attract interest. The baby houses and accessories produced in Nuremberg were considerably larger than their counterparts in England and Holland. Their only drawback was that children were not allowed to play with them.
OFF LIMITS TO CHILDREN
Cabinet houses built by miniature artists for the owners of large mansions and estates were proudly displayed in a corner of the salon. Throughout the Renaissance baby houses made popular wedding gifts and were regarded as the centerpiece of the young newlywed couple’s home. Until the 18th century children were forbidden to play with, even to touch, these baby houses. With the passage of time however they inevitably became toys due to the strong interest they sparked in children.
EACH ONE AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT
The most salient feature of the baby houses that have survived to our day is that they are virtual documents of their period, reflecting in every aspect the culture of the time in which they were built and providing details about everything from interior decoration and domestic life to what the members of the household did for a living and how they spent their time. Carpets, chandeliers, furniture, vases, curtains--virtually everything that was produced in the period is represented, enabling us to see what color wall paper, floor coverings and upholstery was used 150 years ago, as well as to appreciate the taste of the people of the time. Not only that but we can also see each of the articles used in everyday life and get an aesthetic understanding of the popular fashions of the day.
What all cannot be found in those baby houses and shops! A hundred-year-old shoe shop, for example, exhibits all the details of taste in shoes in that period. A toy pastry shop enables us to see how patisserie culture has evolved over the years. Toy factories bring alive before our eyes the threads, fabrics and colors used at the start of the last century. The interior of the bridal shop is decked with lace, tiaras and flowers, while the perfumerie is brimming over with miniature bottles of real perfumes, smaller versions of the actual bottles bearing the exact same labels. The shelves of the mini-pharmacy however display no little boxes of tablets and pills, for the pharmaceutical industry had not yet been born in those days. Instead glass bottles, mortars and pestles, and jars of medicinal herbs line the shelves. Meanwhile in the miniature school there has been no recess in a hundred years; it seems class will never end and the children never grow up. The blackboard, the rows of desks and the teacher’s outfit reflect the period to a ‘T’.
SHOPS SELLING DOLL HOUSES
In the 20th century especially there were large shops in Europe that sold nothing but doll houses. Having succeeded at last in turning baby houses into toys, children dragged their parents into these stores and then decided whether they wanted a toy house or a toy shop. After purchasing the house, they selected the appropriate furnishings from toy store shelves and drawers. Tables, armchairs and curtains were purchased according to taste and no two doll houses were ever exactly alike for that reason. Unfortunately most of these shops have closed today. What is astonishing is that so many doll houses survived two world wars, still standing in a Europe pounded by bombs and leveled by tanks.
The baby houses built up to the beginning of the 20th century were produced piece by piece in tiny workshops. Later, with the advent of the industrial revolution, toy factories were set up to mass produce doll houses and their accessories. Interrupted by the two world wars, mass production of doll houses went into full swing again in the 1950’s in the U.S. where the houses were made of painted sheet metal.
The miniature baby houses of the 18th century were the forerunners of the houses manufactured for Barbie dolls today. After the Second World War especially, the use of plastic came into its own, and houses custom-built of wood had to struggle for survival. By 1959 plastic doll house furniture was being mass produced, and with the appearance of the Barbie doll in the same year even the houses themselves began to be made of plastic.
A look back at the culture of toys in Turkey shows that doll houses were quite uncommon. In the 1960’s a handful of dollhouses built for girls to play with were imported from abroad along with toys for ‘playing house’. But only one doll house was ever produced in Turkey. Built out of wood in the 1970’s, it was actually a grocery. Although it is a copy of a grocery shop built in Germany, its mere existence charms nonetheless.
FROM CHILDHOOD DREAM TO MUSEUM
Standing out among its counterparts in the world, the Istanbul Toy Museum was the boyhood dream of its founder, Sunay Akın, some twenty years ago. Long before founding the museum, this artist studied the history of toys for close to five years. While touring the world’s toy museums, he realized that doll houses head the list of these important artifacts. But acquiring them was no easy task. In the end, Mr Akın managed to purchase a few doll houses from antique dealers specializing exclusively in toys and at public auctions in Holland, England, Nuremberg and Paris. Bringing them back to Turkey was another story. But the helpful attitude of Turkish Airlines’ personnel when he boarded a plane with his hands full was just the encouragement he needed. And every toy he brought back is a boon not only for the museum but for all of us.