This dollhouse was not for children! In 17th-century Holland, wealthy women displayed dollhouses as works of art in their home.This dollhouse belonged to Petronella Oortman, who curated it between 1686 and 1710. According to Rijksmuseum, which holds the object, the dollhouse cost as much as a real house along one of Amsterdam’s exclusive canals.Oortman’s dollhouse is decorated with original, miniature paintings and murals commissioned from successful Dutch artists. It features handcrafted wicker and upholstered furniture, sculpted ceiling reliefs, marble flooring, and miniature porcelain dishware specially ordered from China. When the dollhouse was being displayed, the front door opened to a full garden complete with a working fountain, and the copper pump in the kitchen (cookroom) was fully functional. (The mechanical functions of the fountain and the pump, as well as the outdoor garden, have been lost.)Dollhouses belonging to women like Petronella Oortman offer clues about the geographic perspective of the wealthy Dutch merchant class during the 17th century. They also display a uniquely feminine outlook on status and responsibility.The fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons of women like Petronella Oortman often had “curiosity cabinets” on display. Curiosity cabinets (sometimes called "wonder cabinets") held oddities and artworks collected either by purchase or during the man’s own travels. A curiosity cabinet usually displayed specimens of natural history, such as unusual seashells or gems. It may also have included historical artifacts or souvenirs from foreign lands, such as fabric allegedly taken from an Egyptian mummy. Finally, a curiosity cabinet may have included technological wonders, such as an intricate watch.If a curiosity cabinet displayed a man’s interest and knowledge about the exterior world, a dollhouse displayed a woman’s mastery of her home and possessions. Dollhouses were rarely exact replicas of their owner’s own homes. Like curiosity cabinets, they displayed a privileged, ideal, and balanced collection—representing a privileged, ideal, and balanced life.
There are nine rooms in Petronella’s dollhouse, including a linen room, nursery, and two kitchens. Can you think of rooms and other features that are not represented by Petronella’s dollhouse?
Some of the functions represented by the rooms in Petronella’s dollhouse remain very familiar today, such as a kitchen or nursery. Others are outdated. What rooms are you unlikely to find in a modern home?
In 17th-century Holland, dollhouses were one way people expressed their culture and wealth. What cultural markers do people use to express themselves today?
- The top left room in Petronella’s dollhouse is the linen room. It was used for storage of things like blankets, sheets, and even clothing. Zoom in on the linen room’s ceiling and you’ll see some sheets hanging out to dry.
- The central room on the top floor represents a workroom for the house’s servants. Look closely to see a spinning wheel and tiny wicker baskets. The upstairs of this room is where the maids in a house would sleep.
- The extravagant room in the top right is the dollhouse’s nursery. The silk screens with parrots, behind the bed and crib, are gilded—painted with a fine layer of gold.
- The central floor of the dollhouse would have represented a home’s street-level entrance. The room to the left of the entryway is the dollhouse’s drawing room, where homeowners entertained visitors. Like the drawing rooms of many wealthy merchants, this dollhouse’s drawing room features an original floor-to-ceiling mural, oil painting over the fireplace, upholstered chairs, a backgammon table, and a portable table (black with a lacquer painting of a parrot) that folds up for better storage.
- Behind the central entryway was where the dollhouse’s (lost) garden and working fountain were displayed. The hallway’s floors are marble, and the ceiling is painted in a mythological theme.
- The room on the right side of the entry hall is the lying-in room. A lying-in room was where the woman of the house gave birth. This luxurious lying-in room features a crib, a bed tucked in a curtained alcove in the back wall, and a folding screen.
- The bottom floor of Petronella’s dollhouse has two kitchens. The large one, on the bottom left, is the “best kitchen.” Best kitchens were used for eating and displaying fine tableware. Zoom in to see the specially made porcelain displayed in and above the cabinet along the back wall.
- Next to the best kitchen is the “working kitchen” or cookroom. This represents where cooks would prepare meals, and features a fireplace and sink with a once-working water pump.
- The room at the bottom right is the dollhouse’s tapestry room. Tapestry cloth, a type of woven fabric, covers the walls. This sparse room is more accurately called the “mourning room,” where friends and family would gather to honor the dead.
This dollhouse did include dolls, although all have been lost.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry alleged Adjective
supposed or presumed.
material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.
division in society based on income and type of employment.
to formally order or give permission to work.
to organize a collection for display, such as an art exhibit.
complex and detailed.
precise or finely detailed.
limited to a few characteristics.
exterior adjective, noun
on the outside or outdoors.
having to do with women or girls.
mineral, rock, or organic material that can be cut and polished for use in jewelry.
geographic perspective Noun
a way to understand a topic or area using spatial features and relationships.
very detailed and complex.
type of metamorphic rock.
person who sells goods and services.
corpse of a person or animal that has been preserved by natural environmental conditions or human techniques.
artwork painted directly on a wall.
natural history Noun study and description of living things, especially their origins, evolution, and relationships to one another. Natural history includes the sciences of zoology, biology, botany, geology, mineralogy, paleontology, and many other fields. porcelain adjective, noun
strong ceramic (clay-based) material.
benefit or special right.
an exact copy or reproduction.
being accountable and reliable for an action or situation.
large art museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
object kept to remind someone of an event.
individual organism that is a typical example of its classification.
status symbol Noun
object or behavior that displays the owner's social or economic status.
furniture created or outfitted with padding, springs, coverings, and cushions.
wicker adjective, noun
construction material made from finely woven twigs.