Writer and Collector Flora Jacobs; Founded, Ran Dollhouse Museum

Flora Gill Jacobs, shown with daughter Amanda and part of her collection, wrote authoritatively on dollhouses.
Flora Gill Jacobs, shown with daughter Amanda and part of her collection, wrote authoritatively on dollhouses. (1965 Photo By The Washington Post)
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

Flora Gill Jacobs, whose collection of antique miniatures became the Washington Dolls' House and Toy Museum and attracted visitors from around the world for nearly 30 years, died May 31 of congestive heat failure at Sibley Memorial Hospital. She was 87.

Mrs. Jacobs was considered the country's foremost authority on antique dollhouses and their furniture. The author of five histories and four children's books, she wrote the first history of dolls' houses. Her latest work is the comprehensive "The Small World of Antique Dolls' Houses" (2005). Collectors called her museum, the first of its kind in this country, one of the finest in the world.

The Washington museum, of which Mrs. Jacobs was founder, director and curator, was known for its miniature 19th- and early 20th-century architecture and decorative arts. Within the miniatures was much social history, Mrs. Jacobs often observed.

Mrs. Jacobs's contribution to the hobby cannot be underestimated, said Noel Barrett, toy dealer and regular on PBS's "Antiques Roadshow." Barrett auctioned off a portion of the museum's contents when it closed in 2004.

"Flora is one of the most famous names in dollhouse collecting of the postwar period," Barrett told The Washington Post in 2004. "There are other people, but she single-handedly put it on the map in America."

A Washington native, Mrs. Jacobs began writing as a young girl at Alice Deal Junior High, covering sports for the Alice Deal Star. She graduated from Western High School and attended George Washington University, where she wrote movie and theater reviews for the old Washington Times-Herald.

At 23, she was promoted to women's page and fashion editor at the paper. Later, she became one of three general assignment reporters for the women's pages at The Post.

By 1945, however, her interests in writing had turned to books and the topic of dollhouses. "I'm a writer who became engulfed by a collection," Mrs. Jacobs once said.

Her first book was published in 1953, "A History of Dolls' Houses," depicting the most famous European and American dollhouses from 1558 to the 1950s with more than 150 photographs.

She found her first house in an old barn in southern New Jersey in 1945 and paid $35 for the post-Civil War mansion. It was such a "wreck" that it seem haunted, she once observed. Mrs. Jacobs restored it and filled it with early- to late-Victorian furniture, chandeliers and marble table tops. The house became the inspiration for her first children's book, "The Dolls' House Mystery" (1958).

Her next book, "The Toy Shop Mystery" (1960), was based on another addition to her collection, a rare toy shop from Zurich, circa 1800.

The more she collected and wrote, the more interest mounted in the Lilliputian houses, shops, dolls and toys she kept in her Chevy Chase Village home. "Friends, Brownie troops, people who had heard about it, all wanted to come see my personal collection," she told The Post in 2000. "I thought I had to find a way to share it with them."

In 1975, she opened her museum at 5236 44th St. NW, behind Lord & Taylor, and people came from all over. Sometimes as many as 20,000 visitors a year bought the modestly priced tickets -- $3 for adults and $1 for children -- at the antique post office window.

Mrs. Jacobs fussed over her "serious collection," as she often reminded those expecting a doll museum. Her museum included several houses adorned with late-Victorian gingerbread with a horse stable and fountain on Bliss Street, named for a famous dollhouse maker; a six-story Victorian hotel with furnished guest rooms; a German-made rendition of George Washington's farm; and an elaborate three-story Mexican mansion with a roof garden, aviary and elevator.

Upstairs at the museum was the Edwardian Tea Room, where generations of children enjoyed birthday parties amid turn-of-the-century decor and service from a waitress in proper starched apron and cap. Youngsters also played with some of the antique wind-up toys, such as the merry-go-round and Ferris wheel.

She was known for authoritative writing and lectures. Her other books include "A World of Dolls' Houses" (1965), a history for children; "A Book of Dolls and Doll Houses" (1967); "Doll Houses in America"(1974); "Victorian Dolls' Houses and Their Furnishings"(1978); and the children's' book "The Haunted Birdhouse" (1970).

Mrs. Jacobs was a past president of the Children's Book Guild of Washington and a founding member of the Chevy Chase Historical Society.

Survivors include her husband of 65 years, Ephraim Jacobs of Chevy Chase; and a daughter, Amanda Jacobs of Centreville, Md.

For Mrs. Jacobs, the words of another dollhouse author rang true: "There is great beauty in smallness."

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