The miniature world of Faith Bradford

Meet the Dolls. This miniature family consists of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Doll, their 10 children, two visiting grandparents, five servants, and 20 pets. The Dolls have lived in their house at the museum since 1967.

Dolls' house
The Doll family in their house. Can you spot all the family members?

The Dolls’ House is one of the museum’s most popular displays, and yet, until recently, the general public knew little of the house’s origins. Political History curatorWilliam Lawrence Bird, Jr.’s new book, America’s Doll House: The Miniature World of Faith Bradford, chronicles the history of the Dolls’ House and its creator, Faith Bradford.

So where in the National Museum of American History does a doll house belong? Bird had to answer this question when he was made project director for the Dolls’ House display during the museum’s 2006-2008 renovation. As it turns out, this was not the first time there’s been uncertainty about how to best display the Dolls’ House.

A page from the scrapbook where Bradford documented the design and contents of her models

Faith Bradford donated the Dolls’ House collection to the Smithsonian Institution in 1951, and the house was first put on display in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building the same year. The institution expected a collection of miniatures to be displayed as a look back at life in the early 20th century, but Faith Bradford actually donated an entire imaginary world. In a scrapbook she compiled while assembling the collection, Bradford wrote detailed descriptions of each miniature object in the house, and background histories for each member of the Doll family. When the new Museum of History and Technology (which in 1980 became the National Museum of American History) opened in 1964, the director resisted displaying the Dolls’ House because he felt the sentimental appeal of its fanciful world didn’t fit with the modern, “exhibition machine” concept of the new location. As Bird describes in the book, it was “a floating object, stand-alone attraction, a house without a home.” The Dolls’ House was finally put on display in the Museum of History and Technology in 1967, but with little explanation of the house’s origins.

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“The Miniature World of Faith Bradford” exhibit. Photo from our flickr photostream

The museum’s recent renovation gave Bird the opportunity to share the story behind the Dolls’ House. Thanks to the updated exhibit, now called “The Miniature World of Faith Bradford,” and Bird’s new book, America’s Doll House, the story of Faith Bradford and the world she created is on display for the all to see.

Faith Bradford gives a tour of the Dolls’ House to a young visitor in 1966, courtesy the Washington Star.

As seen in the photo above, Faith Bradford enjoyed giving tours of Dolls’ House. These tours would often end in the Dolls’ House attic, which, according to the exhibit, is the “most poignant space . . . filled with items no longer in daily use but too precious to discard.” One of those items was a miniature lamp that belonged to Faith’s sister who had passed away years before. Just as the Dolls’ House was a place for Faith Bradford to display personal treasures and preserve the memory of her sister, the National Museum of American History is where we display national treasures that tell the story of America’s past for generations to come. As one of those national treasures, the Dolls’ House is exactly where it should be.

Ben Miller is an intern in the New Media program at the the National Museum of American History.