Miniaturists aren't folks who'd rather see the world in a grain of sand than go to the beach.
They do not fantasize about dancing with angels on the head of a pin.
They build, sell or just cherish tiny objects -- usually common everyday items, the kind you find around the house. A tiny house. The kind of house they also like to build.
Little by little, more than 1,000 members of this petite bourgeoise filtered into the swank Sheraton-Washington Hotel last week.The management couldn't have been more pleased.
You see, hoteliers know by now that the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts, throwing its eighth annual "houseparty" from Wednesday through Saturday, attracts pleasant, polite conventioneers. No wild music, no extravagent demands.
"The average person is probably 35 to 55 and female," according to 25-year-old Ann Ruble, a William and Mary College graduate who joined Nutshell News, a monthly for miniature enthusiasts, and became both editor and a miniature collecter herself.
Ruble estimates that there are 200,000 miniaturists in the United States, adding that 400 of NAME's approximately 11,000 members ended up on a waiting list to get into the organization. A sub-group, called the Mini Tonga Society after Arthur Conan Doyle's smallest Holmesean character, specializes in creating fitting environments for a six-inch Holmes. In addition to Nutshell News, periodicals such as Miniature Collector, Miniature Gazette and The Miniature Magazine all manager to prosper.
The craze is international. Over in Dorset, England, a 3 1/2-acre landscape of miniatures called Tucktonia, modeled after British landmarks, opened in 1976.
The craze is historical. Circumstantial evidence indicates that Egyptians constructed dolls' houses long before the first one certifiably on record, credited to Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria, circa 1558.
The craze is profitable. It may rankle folks who believe that smaller is better, but miniatures are becoming big business. Braxton Payne -- who specializes in little fireplaces -- says he makes more money through his Atlanta business today than he did as an architect.
The craze is explainable.
"We can create in a small area a priviate world of our own," offers Bill Briner, a junior high school teacher in San Francisco who exits as president of NAME today.
"It's a controllable environment," says Bettyanne Twigg, a Washington housewife and free-lance writer with a background in psychology. "People have always been fascinated with little things. Look at 'Gulliver's Travels,' one of the most popular stories of all time."
Ruble, one of the under-30s that leading miniature publisher Gary Ruddell says were practically nonexistent on the scene five years ago, picks up on Twigg's analysis. Fashionably accoutered with nonminiature glasses, she agrees without any embarrassment that wish-fulfillment fills the hobby's appeal.
"It opens up a whole new world of fantasy," she says. "You may not be able to control who's president, or the economy, but you can control the doll house. You might not be able to afford an $80,000 home, but in miniature you can have it."
Thursday afternoon, many of the miniaturists attended workshops where they created dolls' bodies out of pipe cleaners and porcelain, teensy-weensy sleighs from cherry wood, enormous eight-inch Persian rugs made of velvet -- patterns printed on them by silkscreen and then filled in with colored pencils -- and itty-bitty wigs of mohair.
Later, some of the more accomplished artists fussed over their doll houses and furnished rooms on display in the Maryland suite. Most encased their miniatures in glass or plastic -- "Can you imagine what it would be like to dust?" said Twigg of a particularly intricate exhibit. After a break for dinner, almost 100 dealers mounted their wares on red-and-white decorated tables in the Washington Room, and at 9 p.m. their fellow conventioneers swept in, talking their special kind of small talk. They studied and sometimes fondled the precious little things around them, many built at the profession's most frequently used scale of one inch to one foot.
The real estate market offered unique attractions. C. Max Boydston of San Francisco dangled a Jim Marcus Victorian townhouse, 23 inches tall, for a paltry $400. Roger L. Guthell of Rochester, N.Y., displayed miniature 18th-century American drawing rooms, with finally wrought Chippendale chairs, that would command thousands of dollars.
Compared with Boydston and Guthell, for instance, the Fieldwood Co. of Hohokus, N.J., was small potatoes. Also apples, watermelons and peaches. The latter, though, give Thomas Rogers of Fieldwood some headaches. "It's difficult to find a fuzz that's small enough," he confided, perusing baskets of ersatz produce that looked like ant snacks.
At other booths were miniaturists spcializing in fireplaces, pianos, books, furniture, dishware, silverware -- you name it, they made it.
Like all subcultures, miniaturism lays claim to celebrities. The first name that comes to most miniaturists' lips is Brooke Tucker -- she's the daughter of actor Forrest Tucker. He played in "F Troop," you nonminiaturists. Liberace owns a collection of miniature pianos. Jane Withers, the actress who plays Josephine the Plumber on television commercials, also collects dolls and miniatures. After a recent interview with "Miniature Collector," her interviewer presented her with a miniature plunger.
As in Withers' case, doll and miniature enthusiasts often overlap. Twigg sums up the political situation succinctly: "There are more doll people who like miniatures than miniature people who like dolls."
Ruble and others concede that some outsiders think an intense adult interest in either dolls or miniatures is possibly too little, too late. If you fall into that category, tread softly these next two weeks. Following the NAME convention, the United Fedration of Doll Clubs will be moving into the Sheraton -- 1,400 strong. It might be a good time to keep your big ideas to yourself.