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Miniature memories

Toys of the past offer glimpse of life in slower-paced times at NW museum

(Published December 17, 2001)

By KRISTINA GLEESON

Staff Writer

Flora Gill Jacobs remembers the dollhouse her neighbor’s father brought back from Germany after World War I, during her childhood.

That interest in dollhouses spilled over into Jacobs’ adult life, and she began collecting miniature objects from the late 1800s and early 1900s about 20 years later. In 1975, she opened the Washington Dolls’ House and Toy Museum at 5236 44th St. NW in Friendship Heights, near the Maryland border, to share her collection with others.

Stepping into the museum offers visitors a glimpse of a less fast-paced life. The realistic miniature houses, shops and the like from the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as toys and games, crystallize that time period.

Visiting the museum is a way to study the past through a "serious collection" of dollhouses and toys that "reflect societal history," Jacobs said. The museum "emphasized Americana" when it was first opened, she said, but since that time the collection has grown to include objects from around the world.

The museum’s collection "consistently [brings] more adults than children… through the museum," Jacobs said, although children are encouraged to visit the museum as well.

Upstairs, the Edwardian Tea Room is sometimes used for birthday parties. The antique, glass-covered ice cream tables awaiting children in the tea room formerly furnished drugstores, Jacobs explained. The druggist would display beauty products and other items under the glass to promote sales, a technique Jacobs called "an early form of subliminal advertising." Today miniature antique dishes and dollhouse foods are on display.

The museum is currently displaying its annual Christmas exhibit, which features a revolving musical tree from the turn of the 20th century in Germany. The tree rotates and plays Christmas music. Museum guides will turn on the tree for groups of 12 or more, Jacobs said. The tree holds rare Dresden ornaments from the mid-1800s – in the shape of an elephant, hat, high heel and reindeer – made by pressing cardboard through a handmade mold. The fragile ornaments originally contained candy, Jacobs said.

Antique board games are also displayed in the Christmas exhibit, such as the Game of the Visit of Santa Claus, Game of Merry Christmas and the Old Santa Claus Scroll Puzzle.

After Christmas, the museum’s special patriotic exhibit, which includes Uncle Sam toys, will resume, Jacobs said. There are also special exhibits in honor of Valentine’s Day and Easter, as well as during baseball and football season, she added. The football exhibit includes the antique Yale-Harvard Game, which is currently on display in a back room.

Some dollhouses in the museum are handmade, while others are commercially manufactured. In 1932, Budd D. Gray from Connecticut built his granddaughters a dollhouse which eventually found its way into Jacobs’ museum. Outside of this so-called Gray House, which is the most modern house in the museum, a miniature vintage car sits in the miniature driveway, and when the garage opens a light automatically turns on, Jacobs said.

An English estate carpenter spent 1856-1858 building Madame St. Quentin’s House, also on display. The décor is decoupaged – meaning that cut-out illustrations were mounted and then several coats of varnish or lacquer were applied.

Jacobs has also collected commercially manufactured dollhouses. She revealed her collection of the Tynie Toy brand of toys from the 1920s, which she said "became almost a cult for collectors." Jacobs pointed out the painted upholstery in one of the houses.

Jacobs seemed particularly proud of her Annie Pinkey Watt House, a mansion that was given to Annie Pinkey of New York City in the late 1800s. Family sources say the so-called "mystery house" was bought at FAO Schwartz, but Jacobs emphasized that "we don’t know who manufactured these."

The museum also houses commercially produced toys, including a circus display which was patented by Shoenhut of Pennsylvania in 1903, and a train from Ives & Lionel that is run on request. The train was out of order during a recent visit, however.

Yet other gems await museum-goers. Jacobs said she "didn’t set out to collect" penny toys, but she "liked them." Penny toys were made in the late 1800s in Germany, and most of them actually cost a penny, Jacobs said. They were often copies of larger tin toys.

The museum also houses a section of unique antique banks and clockwork. The earliest item in this section is a bank of a bagatelle player, the ancestor of modern pinball. The bagatelle player at the museum came from "a bit before the turn of the century," Jacobs said.

Another interesting item is a replica of the Toonerville Trolley, an American electric car made famous by syndicated newspaper cartoonist Fontaine Fox in 1938. The toy in the museum was, in turn, inspired by the cartoon, Jacobs said.

The obsolete 19th century phenomenon of Sunday toys is also represented in the museum. During that era, some religious families didn’t allow their children to play with their usual toys on the Sabbath. Rather, they would set aside toys of a religious nature for kids to play with.

Some of the toys in the museum that used to be set aside for kids’ Sunday entertainment include anchor and church blocks. There is also a Noah’s ark game, as well as games teaching about pilgrims, Sunday school and the Tower of Babel.

Other objects at the museum are equally interesting due to their rarity and insight into history. Behind one glass is a collection of toys representing Teddy Roosevelt’s African safari. Jacobs has never seen it anywhere before, she said, pointing out that the animals used for the toys were not only from Africa but also from Asia.

A replica of an old New Jersey hotel sits in the Christmas display exhibit, and miniature copies of old German stores can be found around the corner.

Jacobs also recognizes the creative value of dollhouses and aims to spark children’s imaginations through her fictional stories. The Doll House Mystery, first published in 1958, was inspired by a dollhouse in the museum’s collection called the South Jersey House and Jacobs’ cat Annie, who lived to be 20 years old. Annie also appears in the author’s Toy Shop Mystery, inspired by a miniature toy shop in the museum. These and other children’s books are available in the museum’s shop.

Jacobs has also written a series of non-fiction books for adults, including A History of Dolls’ Houses, which she said was the first book on the subject ever published. The book covers the most famous European and American doll houses from 1558 to the present.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator