The Extra-Tiny House
A Woman’s Passion for Life in Miniature
Lucy Seiler’s collection of metal dollhouses from the 1940s to the mid-1970s.
Photo by Pamela Hovland
Lucy Seiler has a passion for houses. She owns 29 of them and has built 15 more. The Wilton house she and her husband Mel actually live in resembles a miniature San Simeon, the grand castle built in the early twentieth century on the California coast by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. In fact, the architectural details are so similar, albeit on a far more modest scale, that the Seilers’ former neighbor, Patty Hearst, William Randolph Hearst’s granddaughter, asked for the right of first refusal should they ever decide to sell their house.
Inside the couple’s 1931 home, situated in a leafy south Wilton enclave, are Seiler’s other houses: her impressive collection of mid-century metal dollhouses. They stand about 15-18 inches tall by 30 inches wide. Nine of the 29 are prominently displayed, lined up end to end on two long shelves. With their miniature front doors facing into the room, they resemble a quintessential suburban streetscape. Their various rooflines, colored siding, and shutters help to distinguish one from another. All of the dollhouses’ architectural details are lithographed directly onto the metal, including decorative mailboxes, trellises, shrubbery, and freshly potted annuals. It seems quite possible that June Cleaver could wave to you from inside one of the tiny windows.
The houses in the collection are from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, and most were found at flea markets and antiques stores over the past few decades. They were mass-produced by companies like Marx, T. Cohn, and Eagle, along with the primarily plastic furniture and family members designed to occupy them. “The dollhouses were available at dime stores and through mail-order catalogs from Sears and Montgomery Ward,” Seiler explains.
“They arrived flat in a box, and your mom and dad could put them together easily.” For a mere three or four dollars, one could choose from a wide variety of architectural styles: Colonial, Spanish Mediterranean, ranch, split-level, or Georgian Revival. Some came with swimming pools, detached garages and even fall-out shelters. “I’m on the lookout for that one,” Seiler confesses. Most of the dollhouses have six or seven rooms including the requisite kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, and bathroom. The more elaborate models have breezeways, utility rooms, and sewing rooms. The layouts and decor were in keeping with the era when they were created. There are no media rooms, man caves, or home offices in these houses.
“Dollhouses have been around since Victorian times,” Seiler says, “as toys to be played with but also to teach young women of affluent families how to operate a proper household, to learn the tools of the kitchen, how to set up a nursery, and so on. It was obviously very sexist. Girls had dollhouses and boys had trucks, but that was the mindset of the era.”
Seiler’s attraction to these vintage dollhouses was fueled by childhood memories. “I saved the plastic and wood dollhouse furniture my grandfather made for me and my sisters,” Seiler recalls. “At some point during the 1990s I started buying more. I could pick up a metal house for $15. I liked their graphic appeal and that they are essentially time capsules, reflecting the architecture and design of the period, the new post-war prosperity, and the popularity of developments like Levittown.”
Seiler is a unique collector in that she actually uses her dollhouses to inspire and inform her own creations. In a sun-filled room on the home’s second floor is Seiler’s studio, a space solely dedicated to the craft of making meticulous “room boxes.” These tiny box-like constructions are filled with realistic finishes, furniture, and objects that reflect the chosen style and time period of Seiler’s particular vision. One box is inspired by Vermeer paintings, another by a Victorian potting shed, and so on. What started years ago as an attempt to replicate her childhood dollhouse turned into a hobby Seiler takes very seriously. She has joined clubs and national organizations, and attends conventions around the country. She also participates in exhibitions, and teaches classes. Her students learn about the various scales one can work in, how to electrify a dollhouse, and the best materials to use to create dainty flowers, pastries, or baskets.
As a collector and craftsperson, Seiler is also part scavenger, part art historian, part architect and interior designer. In her spare time, she has begun indoctrinating her young grandchildren into her hunting and gathering rituals. During weekend visits they watch “Antiques Road Show” and “American Pickers” together, learning both collecting tricks and some history. They also scour local estate sales. As a result, the next generation of Seilers already shows signs of the collecting bug. Which Lucy Seiler thinks is just fine, “… because maybe someday one of them will want all of my beloved houses.”
Early American dollhouses were largely influenced by their Dutch and German forebears. By the early 19th century, German companies were exporting a great deal of dollhouse furniture to the United States. Chairs were upholstered, beds were covered by perfectly scaled bedspreads, and wool rugs were laid out on hardwood floors.