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Museum Marvels: Runestone Museum exhibit explores origin of dollhouses

A two-story miniature house at the Runestone Museum provides a glimpse of the past. From a symbol of wealth, a tool for housekeeping, to the popular child's toy we know today.

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Runestone Museum Volunteer, Jan Windey, cleans and arranges the dollhouse piece at the museum. Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Editor's note: This is the latest story of an Echo Press occasional series, "Museum Marvels," that will spotlight unusual exhibits and attractions at local museums and historical places.

ALEXANDRIA — Just a few feet down from Spotty the dog's cozy rug in the homestead exhibit at the Runestone Museum sits a small wooden house wholly furnished and styled to match the layout of a 1920s home.

It is no pink plastic Barbie dream house; the furnishing looks like Wayne Szalinski from the movie, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," used his ray machine to scale everything down to the perfect size to fit the miniature house.

With not a detail unnoticed, the tiny house has everything from appliances, furniture to little decorations that make the place feel like a home. A four-post bed sits in the corner of a bedroom with a sewing mannequin, yarn and thread and a sewing machine, as if a busy seamstress occupied the room. Framed pictures, a calendar and a cuckoo clock, hang from the walls, a music book rests on a small piano waiting to be played, a flower pot and a bible lay on a side table, lacey drapes cover the windows, and each room has a unique wall pattern.

Ardis Botner, 89, formerly from Alexandria, donated the house to the museum in 2011. Botner said she purchased the dollhouse from an auction about 40 years ago. Botner had a hobby for making miniatures. With miniature pieces she collected over the years, Botner decorated the dollhouse in the style of a 1920s home, which she guessed was the period the house was manufactured. Botner said the house was never a toy for the children in her life.

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"It was a toy for me," said Botner

She had two other dollhouses, one a Victorian style, which she handed down to her granddaughter, and the other she donated to another museum.

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A miniature house at the Runestone Museum is decorated to fit the 1920s period. Thalen Zimmerman / Alexandria Echo Press

Today dollhouses are a popular gift for children to play with and express themselves in a world of their imagination. However, in the 17th century — when they first started to grow in popularity in Europe — dollhouses served two purposes, a symbol of wealth and a tool for teaching.

From the German word, "dockenhaus," a small house, dollhouses, were highly decorated with detail and initially produced for adults to show wealth as they often cost as much as an actual house. Their popularity grew in the 17th century, according to an audio recording at the Runestone Museum.

Dollhouses provided upper-class mothers a way to teach their daughters how to run a household and manage servants. Much like the Nuremberg kitchens, small metal kitchenettes, also produced in the 17th century — you might know them now as the plastic kitchens sold by Fisher-Price.

By the 18th century, the miniature houses evolved into "baby" houses, which displayed a woman's mastery of her home and possessions, often replicating the actual home. They were considered the female equivalent of a curiosity cabinet — a cabinet filled with items that displayed a man's interest and knowledge.

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The concept of childhood and playing did not emerge until the 19th century. Then by the end of World War II, the United States began mass-producing toy dollhouses and Nuremberg kitchens for children to enjoy, which are still popular today.

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