This week I’m going to look at how dolls’ houses reflect society and their home owners’ social aspirations.
According to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, dolls’ houses weren’t originally made for children but for the education of young ladies. They were both instructional – the servants you will have and this is what they should be doing – and aspirational – your duty is to help your husband go up in the world and, for that, you need the right sort of home with the right sort of things in it.
Killer Cabinet House: photo courtesy of the V & A’s Museum of Childhood
Take the Killer Cabinet House from the 1830s, now in the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, part of the V & A Museum. It was made by Stockbridge surgeon, John Egerton Killer, for his wife and daughters in the early 1830s when he had four daughters living at home: Jane, Mary, Frances Leigh and Ellen, aged 8 to 14 years old.
The beautifully made cabinet shows four main rooms: top left, the drawing room, top right, the bedroom; bottom left, the parlour and bottom right, the kitchen. Everything is up to date and fit for a well-do-do family of the best class. The neat fingers of his wife and daughters made many of the furnishings.
Back in 1783, as a young lad of 16, John Killer started his apprenticeship as an apothecary and, as those of you who have read my post on The 1822 Herb Garret, St Thomas’s Hospital, 5th April, 2020 (category Natural World) will know, it was a long, arduous and intensive training. A hard-working and properly–trained apothecary could rise in the world, as John Killer obviously did; he became a well-respected member of the Royal College of Surgeons, and helped to establish the Stockport Dispensary for the Poor, and the Stockport infirmary which provided hospital beds for workers injured in the cotton mills.
The kitchen. Photo courtesy of V & A’s Museum of Childhood
Killer’s kitchen proudly shows that it has a Rumford stove, the very latest in cooking technology and hygiene. The Rumford stove was innovative in that it did not produce heat until it was wanted, and in just the right amount; it was also insulated so that the heat was used before it could be lost. It was a huge saving in coal and much cleaner.
Count Rumford, originally Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814), was an Anglo-American. In his interesting and varied life in America, England and Bavaria, ‘he inaugurated many social reforms, in London, and made a number of mechanical inventions with a view to ameliorating domestic life.’ He was made Count von Rumford and knighted, Sir Benjamin Thompson.
The public knew Rumford as ‘the apostle of fireside comfort’, and a poem was even written to celebrate his achievements:
Note of melodious cadence on the ear
Loud echoes Rumford here and Rumford there.
Lo! Every parlour, drawing room, I see,
Boasts of thy stoves and talks of naught but thee.
We can see that the plain grey painted walls in Killer’s kitchen would be much easier to keep clean than flaky whitewash walls covered in grease from years of cooking on open fires. And, although we can see a cat by the kitchen table, this does not look like a room which would harbour vermin. There is a wealth of clean, shiny kitchen utensils hanging on the walls, and a spice box for cloves, nutmeg and mace on the kitchen table. And note the ‘hastener’, a roasting screen which stopped fat from spitting out from a joint cooking on a spit, in the left hand corner of the room.
Stockbridge was a smoky, industrial town and John Killer may also have been instructing his wife and daughters in the importance of cleanliness, something which, as surgeon, he must have known about.
The Parlour: photo by Elizabeth Hawksley
Next door to the kitchen on the ground floor is the Parlour, a room for both adults (women) and children. There is a tiny book of sketches and poems to interest the children, and a doll sitting on the carpet. The information board tells us that the handmade sofas are made of card, and covered in patterned velvet and with matching tasselled cushions. The round easy chairs on the left are hand-embroidered in brightly-coloured silks – all made by his wife and the children of the house.
Upstairs on the right is the bedroom with a magnificent richly-gilded four poster bed, said to be a copy of one belonging to the Earl of Leicester. I love the details of the clothes horse, the baby’s wickerwork bassinette with the hood, and the information board assures us that there are some tiny knitted slippers, but I confess they are so small I can’t see them. Again, the daughters of the house have been busy sewing tiny clothes to go in the laundry basket.
The Drawing-room: photo by Elizabeth Hawksley
The drawing-room is, surely, an aspirational room, with its classy white and gold wallpaper and gilded furniture, for example. I found myself wondering if the gold ferns on the walls were stencilled on. The people in the room look as if they are there formally; the ladies’ dresses are more gauzy and have more delicate trimmings than we see in the other rooms; and the gentlemen, politely standing, seem slightly ill at ease. Are they paying a formal call?
The information board gives us a useful cleaning tip: the only way to clean expensive wallpaper is by rubbing it gently with bread. I wonder if they still do that in National Trust stately homes?
In creating this beautifully made cabinet of a desirable home, John Killer, surely, also wants a home which will show off his status, where the right sort of visitors will be impressed by the elegant furniture, the piano, and the top of the range wallpapers. His daughters are growing up – this is what they should be looking for: a well-to-do husband who can support them in the manner to which they are accustomed.
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