Dollhouses: Life on a Smaller Scale : No Challenge Is Too Tiny for Hobbyists' Growing World

Have you ever had a dollhouse in your home? A Victorian mansion, perhaps? A "Gone With the Wind" style? Or a more modest Colonial farmhouse?

Dollhouse owners, who often start out by buying one for a small daughter, frequently become so enthusiastic about them that they spend small fortunes on them.

And men, according to Joy Vessey, who owns the Gallery of Miniatures in Carlsbad, can be just as enthusiastic about them as women. They wallpaper them, wire them, paint them, carpet them.

They put shingles on the roof, chandeliers in the dining room. They become engaged in a never-ending hunt for miniature furniture in exactly the right period for their miniature rooms. And, of course, they need miniature people.

"When I first began making miniature people for dollhouses, it was only a hobby," Dottie Sowers said. "Now, it's not unusual for me to be working on them 16 hours a day."

Sowers was speaking in her large home, a house that perches on a north Escondido hillside in an area still so rural the nearest store is five miles away.

"The house had five bedrooms when we moved in, but three of them have been taken over by my work," she admitted cheerfully.

On a work table in front of her, a jumble of porcelain arms and legs, each one no larger than the diameter of a dime, glimmered against a black cloth.

"Once you become involved in the world of miniatures," she explained as she gingerly picked up, with tweezers, a porcelain head the size of a pea, "it's totally absorbing."

And as well as absorbing, she added, most enthusiasts of miniatures discover that it's a great way to meet friendly people of all ages.

"Last November, when the National Assn. of Miniature Enthusiasts held a three-day convention in San Diego, people came from all over the world to take classes, or to get ideas, or to buy things from dealers," she said. "They came from South America. Canada. England. All over."

"People who make miniatures never hoard the secrets of their technique. If you ask them how they managed to do something, they're delighted to tell you."

Saturday and Sunday, when the Miniature Crafters of San Diego holds its 14th annual show at the Scottish Rite Temple, their scale rule for all the miniatures displayed will be one inch, half an inch or a quarter of an inch to the foot. Everything in a dollhouse--from the bedroom slippers worn by the master of the house to the wine glasses on the dining-room table--must conform to the same scale.

Small Things, Big Woes

And that can present certain challenges.

"The 1-inch scale never gave me any problems," Sowers said, indicating several tiny porcelain people--a butler, a Victorian baby and several characters from "Gone With the Wind"--standing, authentically costumed, on her worktable. (At a 1-inch scale their height works out to 5 1/2 inches for Scarlett and 6 1/2 inches for Rhett.)

"But the one-half inch scale . . ." She rolled her large brown eyes expressively toward the ceiling. "The first time I ordered some one-half-inch molds, I was so intimidated when I saw them that I put them away for three weeks. They are so tiny you need an eyedropper to pour the porcelain into them.

"And when the heads come out of the molds and you are cleaning them off with a very tiny paint brush--this is when they are in the greenware stage before you fire them in a kiln, if you brush a little too hard, you can knock off their noses and ears!"

Until 1983--Sowers, who is married to an industrial engineer and has a grown son--lived in Northern California. She owned, and ran in succession, three successful restaurants there. In those days, the only dolls she made were cloth ones, for a three-story Victorian dollhouse she owned as a hobby.

"When we moved to Escondido I didn't plan on working at all," she said. "But I missed being around people. I missed my friends. My customers. My husband has to travel a lot, and this house is pretty isolated. I found I was growing more and more depressed."

On a day when she remembers feeling absolutely wretched, Sowers drove to a store to buy a dollhouse kit. (The movers had broken her Victorian dollhouse.)

Came Out Feeling Great

"I walked in feeling blue and came out euphoric," she said. "There was a meeting of the 'No-Name Miniature Makers Club'--none of them have ever been able to come up with a name so that's what they call themselves--going on in a back room. They invited me to join."

She also, through contacts she made in the club, joined the doll-making class of Janet Dieni--a class in which she learned how to work with porcelain.

A year later for health reasons, Dieni decided to sell her business. Sowers took over. She took over the kilns (two then, three now), the inventory, the students. Soon the closets of her house were filled with hundreds of glass eyes, with disembodied torsos and limbs and with bright swatches of tussah, a silk and mohair mixture used for wigs.

Sowers has 24 doll-making students spread over four classes.

"But only two are interested in making miniatures," she said. "Of all the dolls, the miniature ones are the most time-consuming. From pouring to baking to painting and wigging them takes two weeks. They sell, unclothed, for about $45. So it's really a labor of love."

2-Inch Chandelier for $95

Carlsbad's Vessey, who has owned the Gallery of Miniatures for six years, said, "People often say, 'You're kidding!' when they hear the price of miniatures." A 2-inch-high chandelier for $95, or an inch-long hand-hooked rug for $26 makes people blink.

"They think the smaller something is the less it should cost. They just don't realize the time and effort that goes into it."

Vessey, who also plans to exhibit at the Miniature Crafters show this weekend, spends her working hours surrounded by tiny things: inch-long copies of Esquire and Sunset magazines. Tiny pianos, patchwork quilts, pottery and paintings. Minute hiking boots, cabbages and bird cages.

"Just anything you'd find in a household," she said. "The trend now is toward handmade. People seem to want to get away from plastic. . . . They want their dollhouses to pass not only to their children, but to their children's children."

Typical of the kind of handmade, hand-painted miniatures that people are attracted to now, Vessey added, are the rocking chairs she buys from a young Amish girl.

"Her grandfather makes full-sized rocking chairs, and she uses his left-over wood to make miniature ones."

Even the inexpensive "Made in Taiwan" type of miniatures have improved in quality since she first went into business in 1980, Vessey said.

'Blobs of Glue'

"They used to have a passion, in Taiwan, for using huge blobs of glue," she said, smiling.

"But the really serious collector is hunting for perfection. In fact, many collectors come to the shows because they're looking for craft workers who don't sell to stores."

Vessey, who grew up with a Southern plantation dollhouse made for her by her architect father, is herself a craft worker. Last year she spent four months working, in her spare time, on a 1-inch scale miniature fisherman's cottage, on a miniature wooden pier, with a miniature fisherman (made by Sowers) smoking his pipe and staring thoughtfully at his lobster pots.

Miniatures, Vessey said, stimulate the imagination.

"Recently, I had a house in the gallery window made by a retired naval office in Fallbrook," she said. "It looked straight out of 'Tobacco Road.' Part of the roof was missing. The porch, which had chickens roosting underneath it, sagged. Inside, there was a meal on the kitchen table but no people around, as if they'd been mysteriously whisked away."

Vessey's 5-year-old grandson Tyler was visiting while the "Ghosty House," as he called it, was in the window.

"He tugged my elbow and whispered, 'I want to be small and get inside that house.' I was really busy with customers, so I said, 'Just use your imagination, Tyler.' I guess he did! Fifteen minutes later, I discovered he had taken off his shoes, pulled a chair up to the house and was sitting there with his feet inside it."

The "Ghosty House," like the fisherman's cottage, was made to a 1-inch scale, and this size, Vessey said, is the most popular.

"But the one-half inch is coming in. A lot of homes now don't have room for huge old dollhouses, so people have been going to smaller sizes."

Even, she added, to one-quarter inch.

Dottie Sowers, however, working with her tweezers and her magnifying glass on her Escondido hillside, has no plans to tackle that minuscule size. The demand for one-half inch is so great, she said, that she is working harder than she has ever done in her life.

"But I love it. I never get depressed now. You get lost in miniatures. They take so much concentration they pull you out of yourself--and into a fascinating world."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World