Flora Gill Jacobs to Close Washington Dolls' House & Toy Museum
by Lita Solis-Cohen
In A History of Doll Houses (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953), Flora Gill Jacobs, the pioneer writer about dollhouses, explained that in 1950 "an authority on antiques apologized in a magazine article for having credited the origin of the rocking chair to colonial America in the mid-eighteenth century." A toy rocker had been found in a plague pit near London in the company of other items from the reign of Charles I, which placed the rocker's beginning in England in the mid-17th century.
Jacobs's 1974 book Dolls' Houses in America (Charles Scribner's Sons) is subtitled Historic Preservation in Miniature. In the introduction she noted, "With the buildings of the past going down like tenpins, and the wrecker's ball frequently sending landmarks to oblivion despite the assiduous efforts of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and smaller, local groups struggling to preserve them; with atrocities committed again and again in the name of urban renewal, and the flavor of the past, its variety and vitality, being snuffed out like so many gas-lamps at dawn on a Victorian lane, the preservation of old dolls' houses has become considerably more than a footnote to the architecture and furnishings of days gone by."
Flora Gill Jacobs not only wrote the first history of dollhouses (the book celebrated its golden anniversary last year), but in 1975 she founded the Washington Dolls' House & Toy Museum, which became a model for a number of dollhouse museums throughout America.
At 85, faced with high costs and advancing years, Jacobs will close her museum in Washington, D.C., on May 1 and put almost the entire museum collection on the auction block. Carversville, Pennsylvania, auctioneer Noel Barrett will mastermind the sale on June 19 at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, Maryland, two miles from the museum. The preview will be at the museum, and nothing will be moved until actually sold. The sale will be conducted with video images of the items.
Barrett said that the only important dollhouse Jacobs is keeping is the first one she bought, known as the "South Jersey house," an 1870's mansion that has become the logo for the museum.
Flora Gill Jacobs began collecting in 1945, and, encouraged by her husband, Ephraim, she upgraded and added to her collection constantly. When her collection outgrew her house she opened the museum in order to share it with more people. "She always said the chicken came before the egg because she wrote about dollhouses before she began buying them," Barrett recounted. "She collected only antique dollhouses. The latest dollhouse in the museum was built in 1932."
The sale will be a landmark, with 35 dollhouses; 45 other buildings such as stables, bakeries, kitchens, and shops; 100 dolls, miniature and full-size; and an additional 200 toys and miniatures, including a Schoenhut circus and a Schoenhut Teddy Roosevelt safari set.
The dollhouses will include a seaside hotel from 1903 and a set of houses grouped together as "Bliss Street," named for the Rhode Island dollhouse maker R. Bliss Manufacturing Co., known for its paper lithographed Victorian gingerbread Lilliputian architecture. One of the most elaborate houses in her auction is a two-story Mexican villa complete with an elevator, a roof garden, an aviary, awnings at the windows, and a tile-paved gated carport. It could bring more than $50,000.
"The houses Flora bought furnished will be sold as she got them, and some of the houses she furnished herself will be also sold furnished even though they might bring more if the furnishings were sold piece by piece," said Barrett. A few of the houses will be sold empty and the furniture sold separately. For example, a Tynietoy Mansion will be sold unfurnished and each of the room settings will be sold as a separate lot. A "mystery house" furnished with an array of early German-made furniture by makers such as Märklin and Rock & Graner will be sold as single lots of furniture or suites of furniture. Jacobs coined the term "mystery house" for a series of houses that were sold by F.A.O. Schwarz in the late 19th century; no one has yet determined who made them.
"It breaks my heart to sell the ones I furnished myself," said Jacobs in a phone interview. "There are pieces in them I will never see again." Jacobs, who has been collecting for 60 years, added, "I went to shows before there was a line at the door, but would you believe I have never been to a toy or doll auction, and now I am having my own?"
With word of the sale out collectors have been beating a path for a last look at the Washington Dolls' House & Toy Museum, 5236 44th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, and $2 for children under 12. Call (202) 363-6400 or see the Web site (www.dollshousemuseum.com). The museum will close its doors on May 1 and reopen for the auction preview, June 15 through June 18. Admission to the sale and preview is by catalog only. Catalogs are $35 and admit two people. For more information, call Noel Barrett at (215) 297-5109 or visit (www.noelbarrett.com).