The skill of the cabinet makers in producing these pieces is truly amazing, and in some cases the work involved would be greater than producing the full size example. Indeed, the true test of of their skill, is when you see a photograph of the piece, can you tell whether or not it is a miniature or full size example? No one can give you the definitive reason as to why miniature furniture was made, was it an apprentice piece, something used by travelling salesmen, an example of the cabinetmakers skill, a toy for adults, or something for children and their dolls? All we can say is that these small pieces have a charm all of there own and have been collected for many years by both antique dealers and members of the public alike. The following are some of the various reasons why miniature furniture was made, but one of the joys in collecting miniature furniture is that you need to look at each piece in the showroom yourself and form your own opinion as to why they made that particular item.
Doll’s house furniture
A great deal of miniature furniture was obviously made for dolls houses and is usually one-sixteenth or one-twelfth full size, such as the chess table and men on page. From the end of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, there was a passion for anything miniature, be it porcelain, silver, pewter or glass, as well as small pieces of furniture on which to display it. Whilst the Dutch displayed their collections in cabinets, the English decided to display theirs in miniature houses, and these were called ‘Baby Houses’ as at that time the word ‘doll’ had another meaning, not quite so innocent. At the end of the 18th century, these houses started to be placed in the nursery, rather than other parts of the house, and were specifically made for children to play with. Furniture was made by toy-makers and cabinet-makers until about 1840, and from then the majority was made in Germany, as it became a more commercialised business.
There are many pieces in the exhibition that I think were made as doll’s furniture, with the obvious examples being the four poster and half-tester beds, the wardrobe together with various chairs and tables throughout the exhibition. I would expect doll’s furniture to be made for strength and utility, as it was intended to be played with, rather than for perfect proportions.
Since furniture making started, a certain amount has been made for children, normally at one-half full size, with the obvious examples being children’s chairs. We have not included any of these in the catalogue, as they do not fit into the criteria for the exhibition, but a selection will be on show in the showroom, during the exhibition.
Toys for adults
In the late 17th century, the Dutch excelled in making miniature furniture for the amsement of adults and this craze came to England and then America in the 18th century. It is easy to see why a small chest of drawers would be made, as it would be possible to display on a larger example or a dressing table, to hold trinkets, gloves, ribbons, etc, and this would probably account for the large number of chest of drawers made.
It was widely believed for many years that miniature furniture was made by apprentices to show their skill at cabinet making and to produce a final piece at the end of their apprenticeship for them to show future employers their ability. However, most people now agree that this is not the case, and if the apprentice made any examples, it was for the benefit of the cabinet-maker.
There is another belief that these pieces were made as travelling salesman samples and there is an element of truth in this. There have been examples found with there original carrying cases, but the lack of a large number of these would indicate that this was not a practical solution as the salesman would have to carry many different examples. Also, at the end of the 18th century, many designers and cabinet-makers had produced design books, which would have been much easier to transport around the country by the salesman.
This is the most logical reason for the many examples that were made, certainly in the early 18th century and again in the 19th century. Many cabinet-makers would work from a workshop, perhaps with a small window area onto the road, or a small area inside the workshop where they would be able to display examples of their skill, and it would be natural that these pieces would be made in miniature so as to show many different items. In the major cities, it would have been normal for the customer to visit the workshop to discuss their requirements, whilst in the country it was more likely that the cabinet-maker would visit the customer in their own property and would therefore need to be able to take examples of his work and the latest deigns with him.
One reason, which never occurred to us, was that items were made by the cabinet makers to carry in parades held in their towns. This only came to light when we found a small chest of drawers which was inscribed, that this piece was made by the cabinet maker to carry in his towns parade to celebrate King George III’s Jubilee. This would explain why there are so many good examples, as every town would hold parades to celebrate numerous events and a miniature piece enabled you to carry an example to show of your skills.
As you can see, I have given you the various reasons as to why it is believed miniature furniture was made, but in most cases it is up to you to decide.