This essay was written by an M.A. student in a Museum Practice seminar in the Department of Art History, Faculty of Fine Arts, Concordia University. The seminar was taught by Dr. Loren Lerner with the assistance of Dina Vescio, a M.A. graduate of the program.
Meeting the Forster Family
Driving through Dundas, Ontario, on a foggy and rainy fall morning, chugging down my second cup of coffee as a late night flight from Montreal stole too many precious hours of sleep I pulled up in front of a charming old blacksmith’s cottage built in 1859. Scurrying in the rain, I passed through a wrought-iron gate, a well-groomed lawn and a beautiful garden before I reached the house and rang the doorbell. A gracious and very excited woman welcomed me into her tastefully and meticulously decorated home and we immediately began chatting as though we were old friends. There was no doubt from the moment the door opened that she was Catharine Maybee – who goes by Katie – the last proud owner of the Forster Family Dollhouse (fig. 1).
In many ways being in Katie’s home was like being inside the dollhouse, not simply because of its charm but because her inherited furniture acted as models for the dollhouse miniatures, such as the dining room table and the canopy bed (figs. 2 & 3).1 The Forster Family Dollhouse was a precious toy and collectible item for six generations, praised by family members and friends. Katie and her mother Mabel Malley (1914-1997) decided to share their miniature treasure with the world in 1988. After a memento was selected the dollhouse was sent to the Canadian Children’s Museum (CCM), where it enchants thousands of children, adults and visitors daily.
Why is the Forster Family Dollhouse considered a Canadian national treasure? Kerri Davis, coordinator of curatorial services at the CCM, suggests: “so many people say Canada does not have a history, but if we just listen to the stories of individual people and families, our shared experiences and strong multi-cultural unity prove that we do, in fact, have a powerful history.”2 The Forster’s dollhouse is at one and the same time a family heirloom and a visual record of a Canadian family going back to the mid-19th century. This text provides an in depth analysis of the miniature family estate by laying out the many valuable treasures that are part of the dollhouse and introduces the most devoted owner of the home Mabel Malley (fig. 4). It also makes evident why the dollhouse is part of our Canadian heritage and very much worthy of its status as a national treasure.
The Forster Family Dollhouse
Dollhouses date to the 16th century and functioned as adult collectibles. Only in the late 19th century – and throughout the 20th – were they built predominantly for children.3 The Forster’s dollhouse includes miniatures dating to the 1830s and exemplifies the shift between the dollhouse as adult collectible and child’s toy. This family treasure was equally important to Catharine and William Forster, the original owners of the home, and their children. The whole family shared and appreciated the dollhouse for its precious and delicate quality, a feature valued by each generation of the Forster family. During my visit with Katie, she reminisced of her childhood visits to her grandparents’ house and the excitement she had knowing that the dollhouse would be set up in their playroom.
When Catharine, William and four of the Forster children immigrated to Canada in 1868, the original dollhouse was left in Ireland but a large selection of miniatures were brought over in a wooden crate. To the family’s great dismay, upon their arrival to Canada, the crate accidentally suffered the fate of becoming a carpenter’s workbench. Eighty-eight pieces were salvaged and given a new home in a drawing room cupboard. As a prized family possession the pieces were marveled at on special occasions and during Sunday night dinners. In 1921, a dollhouse was built for Mabel’s sixth birthday; it was a gift that would become a lifelong hobby and in many ways, a lifelong love. Katie reminisced affectionately about her mother recounting the times she would come rushing down the stairs and eagerly share her new miniature creations with her children.
The mix of outdated furniture and modern appliances writes Mabel Malley in her history of the dollhouse is a “span of the ocean and the years.”4 Some old fashioned miniatures include a butter churn, a hand cranked telephone, a wooden washbasin, a fireplace stove, an oak spinning wheel and various ivory carvings. Alongside such dated items there is a washing machine, an electric heater, a towel rack heater and a garden barbecue, not to mention all new windows, wood flooring and working electricity. The fact that the dollhouse has had many owners over a period of one hundred years is apparent by the style of furnishing associated with different eras and the inconsistent size of the objects. Such characteristics add very much to its charm and convey the feeling of the human touch. One of the original dollhouse’s miniatures for example, is a painted ceramic ox head which looms over the hallway door on the main floor; its bulkiness is accentuated by its elegant surroundings (fig. 5). Upon closer inspection, one notices that the ox head is a child’s whistle, included in the dollhouse as a hunting trophy. An outdoor thermometer is also installed on the bay window next to the front door (fig. 6). At first glance this seems perfectly normal until one realizes that its large size is completely off scale. Furthermore, sitting on a desk in the drawing room underneath a portrait of Catharine Forster rest two oversized quill pens, in an inkwell that was an original miniature brought from Dublin. The quills are “a present from Billy, the budgie bird of Michael B. Malley,” Katie’s older brother (fig. 7).5
What is particularly provoking about the dollhouse is its functionality as a whole, largely due to Mabel’s personal touch. Any question that a child asked about the house, Mabel handcrafted an answer, for example: why is there an inkwell but no writing devices? Mabel added the budgie quills to rectify this problem. In the inventory list, Mabel wrote a small note that reads “only those who were kissed by a leprechaun when they were babies know that the door in the third floor corridor leads to the night nursery and servants’ wing.” Like the Budgie quill, Mabel added a door in answer to the question, “where do all the people sleep?” These little secrets add to the mystery and splendor of the dollhouse.
A Canadian Treasure
During our conversation Katie recalled leading groups of schoolmates to her home to admire the dollhouse. Everyone who encountered the dollhouse took interest in it: family friends offered miniature souvenirs from their travels and sometimes their own personal treasures to be included in the dollhouse. For example, in a letter addressed to Mabel, Mrs. Anthony Hodges enclosed a piece of fabric inherited by her family which was apparently a morsel from the Queen’s ball gown worn during the victory celebration of the Battle of Waterloo (fig. 8). While these facts were not verified – it is not clear which Queen she is referring to since there was no French, British or Prussian Queen during this time – Mrs. Hodges nonetheless wanted her treasure to be part of the dollhouse.
William Charles Forster, husband of Catharine Forster, the first owner of the home, was the drawing master in the Hamilton school system. Many of the miniature watercolours in the dollhouse are his portraits of family members. He was the art teacher of Laura Muntz Lyall – a well-known artist during the late-19th and early-20th centuries – who also created two watercolours for the dollhouse: a kitten’s head and a portrait of young Mabel Marie Douglas, the fourth owner of the home (fig. 9). Katie chose the drawing of the kitten’s head as her memento when the dollhouse was given to the CMC. It is therefore no longer part of the dollhouse collection.
Other notable treasures donated by individuals who encountered the dollhouse include a watercolour of a woman and child (c. 1830) drawn by Queen Victoria’s court painter Charles Gray as well as a Baxter print given to the family in 1939 from Arthur Secor, benefactor of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. George Baxter worked in the printing industry and was the first person to make colour printing widely accessible and affordable.6 Since there are nearly one thousand miniatures in the Forster Family Dollhouse, it is impossible to discuss all of the treasures in this home. What is of the utmost importance is how the dollhouse lovingly represents the story of immigration and life in Canada through the preservation of this miniature family estate.
While I fell in love with the dollhouse the moment I saw it, speaking with Katie gave me significant insight into how special this home really is. The dollhouse has toured the nation over the past hundred years, traveling from Hamilton, Ontario to Victoria, British Columbia, and to Montreal, Quebec. It has acted as an attraction for several charitable foundations and was included in the renowned window display at the Ogilvy’s department store in Montreal. After the four heart-warming hours Katie and I spent together, I had to peel myself away from Lyall’s watercolour and Katie’s family photo albums in order to rush to the airport and catch my flight back home. I have no doubt Katie and I will remain in touch as the passion she holds for her family’s – now our Nation’s – miniature treasure is infectious. The dollhouse brings people together and the Forster family understood that. Thank you, Katie, for sharing your story with the world and with me.
LIST OF FIGURES
fig. 8 Fabric owned by Mrs. Anthony Hodges (given to Mabel Malley in 1963). (Photo: Forster Family Photo Album)
fig. 9 Laura Muntz Lyall, Kitten’s Head, 1923, pastel on wood. (Photo: Catharine Maybee)
- The word ‘dollhouse’ can be spelled in different ways. For example, the commonly used British form is ‘doll’s house’. For the sake of continuity with texts written by the Canadian Children’s Museum, ‘dollhouse’ is the chosen spelling for this article.
- Kerry Davis, conversation with Laurie Filgiano, 26 Oct. 2009.
- For more information on the history of the dollhouse from the 16th century onwards, see James E. Bryan, III, “Material Culture in Miniature: Historic Dolls’ Houses Reconsidered,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2003) and on the history of dollhouses since antiquity, see Flora Gill Jacobs, A History of Doll Houses: Four Centuries of the Domestic World in Miniature (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953).
- Mabel Malley, “History of the Forster Dollhouse,” (Hamilton, Ontario: unpublished article).
- Mabel Malley, Dollhouse Inventory by Owner, donated to the Canadian Children’s Museum (1988) 26 Oct. 2009.
- For more on Baxter prints and techniques, see: National Gallery of Canada, Colour Prints by George Baxter, 1804-1867 (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1959).