WHEN YOU LOOK into the miniature world, you instinctively reach for your glasses--even if you don't wear glasses. You feel like Jonathan Swift in Lilliput or Alice in Wonderland with "Drink Me" or King Kong atop the Empire State Building.
You could crush every object with a single squeeze. If a piece slipped from your grasp, it might smash into pieces no thicker than a toothpick. Your sneeze could send a chair across the room.
Think of your power! The world within your grasp! A giant among pygmies!
In the past 10 years, hobby houses have become one of the fastest growing collections, right up there with stamps and coins, according to some estimates.
In this season, when people traditionally think of setting up cre ches or dollhouses for decoration, the Smithsonian Associates are holding a miniature series. Next Sunday (Nov. 15) in this house-tour town, the series will hold one of the few tours of miniature houses, coordinated by Dana Little, associate editor of Smithsonian magazine. Little herself doesn't have a dollhouse but is responsible (by way of tiny furnishings from her own childhood) for her parents' dollhouse -- called, appropriately, the Little House.
The tour of 11 private miniature collections is part of the current miniature series, which includes five more Tuesday night lectures, running through Dec. 8 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History Learning Center. Tickets for the individual lectures and the tours are available by calling 357-3030.
In the miniature world, an inch equals a foot -- a clock's winding key is the size of a pen's ballpoint, a Playboy magazine is the size of your nail, a staircase is smaller than a step.
Just as in the real world, houses and furnishings live on several levels. Some are only plastic doodads, meant for children. Others are works of art, as difficult to make and as expensive to buy as the real thing, and certainly too good for children. As one discerning child put it when looking at William Robertson's miniatures: "Mommie, Mommie, put on the cover so my hands won't get into trouble."See FORM, Page 2, Col. 1 FORM, From Page 1
Dollhouses have an ancient history, as far back in time, perhaps, as dolls. Today, the collectors call them "miniatures," a more explicit term because many have no doll tenants and some are not even houses but single rooms, or shops or stage sets. In most, the emphasis is not so much on the house, though many are fearfully and fantastically made, but rather on the exquisitely detailed objects.
Even Henry Kissinger has been seen buying a miniature volume of love sonnets. And Lady Mary Henderson, wife of the British ambassador, has several tiny rooms.
Miniature houses are nothing strange for Washington. One of the most important collections of miniatures in the world is that of Flora Gill Jacobs, whose own full-sized house became so full of miniatures that she had to open the Dolls' House & Toy Museum in Chevy Chase. Jacobs also has written many books on the subject. The most public dollhouse is the 23-room Victorian mansion displayed at the Museum of American History. And in nearby Clifton, Md., Ann Ruble edits the Nutshell News, the oldest miniatures magazine in the country.
The handiwork of William Robertson, 25, who lives in Wheaton, Md., is the most prized possession of many of the best small houses, including some on the tour.
"It's great to be able to go down to the shop and play all day," Robertson said, while showing off his miniatures recently. "I'd always built things, plastic models as a child, custom cars as an adult. Then one day I saw a miniature room, and I was hooked."
Robertson's mother, Esther Robertson, urges him on, suggesting pieces she'd like for her own collection. She also collaborates by doing exquisite needlepoint with silk thread on 72-count mesh.One tiny 1 1/2-inch fire screen she worked had 1,300 stitches in 17 colors. The fire screen, a frame holding the petite point work picture, sells for $575. When you see the tiny legs with seven tiny pieces making up the dovetail and the pads on the feet as small as the head of a pin, you'll understand why.
Robertson can claim to have built if not a better mousetrap, at least a smaller one. His Hepplewhite mousetrap, a copy of a 1790 real one, is perfectly proportioned but hardly as big as an ordinary postage stamp. It's made of 77 pieces: rosewood, boxwood, ebony, Cuban mahogany, Honduras mahogany, walnut, cherry, satinwood and brass. Once the miniature mouse is in the trap -- snap, and the guillotine-type door clanks shut. All it needs is a 1/12th size rat. He's only made two mousetraps.
The grandfather clock is likely Robertson's masterpiece. The 8-inch cabinet is cherry and briar. The brass face is hand-engraved. On the top are tiny finials. All the joints are tongue and groove. A 1/2-inch, 14-carat gold key unlocks the case. A 3/16-inch key winds the clock. It keeps perfect time, if you wind it every other day. Robertson has made 15 in a two-year period and sold each for $2,000.
"I work with a jeweler's glass in my eye, and all sorts of tools in my hand," he said. "I just bought a scalpel designed for brain surgery, but I also have large and small power tools, some intended for jewelry, others for dentistry."
Robertson, whose furniture is most often copied from antiques, has also made a 29-piece tea caddy and now is at work on six tables. He only sells them when he's finished, though often most are reserved before he's begun.
Dr. John J. Little and his wife, Naida Little, began the collection when she was going through her daughter Dana's old toys. "I thought, this little dining suite is too pretty not to save," she said the other day as she turned on the lights in the Little House. Before long, she'd found a fireman to build a four-story, 12-room house with 10-inch-high ceilings and rooms 16-by-18 inches.
The house has petit point rugs, an elevator that really works, a Queen Anne love seat, a minute newspaper, a conservatory, a piano, a gold candelabra, a Ronald Reagan biography, a miniature catalog (of miniatures), a tiny basket, a lacquered fan, a Gucci sack, hand-painted Delft tiles and a French bedroom complete with a black lace peignoir. The pictures come from National Gallery of Art cards, except for a tiny portrait of Dana Little. Two chandeliers were once salt shakers. Naida Little made the curtains, and well-known miniaturist Virginia Merrill made the settee with its petit point upholstery. Many of the pieces in the house cost almost $300 each.
"I wanted to have a miniature house that looked like people lived in it," said Naida Little. "That's why we chose an eclectic group of furnishings."
The house has all sorts of comfortable extras, such as tiny pillows for the wingback chairs, whiskey bottles on the bar, a globe of the world and leaves in a basket near the fireplace.
Phoebe Edmonds, a textile designer, modeled her Georgian house after Mount Pleasant, an 18th-century house in Philadelphia once owned by Benedict Arnold. "I had never even collected miniatures before three years ago, and now look," she said as she showed off her house.
Unlike many people, she made much of the furniture and interior detailing herself for the two-story house, two rooms deep. One wall is covered with exquisite Chinese embroidery, another is hand-stenciled. A circular staircase, built from a kit but altered to fit, sweeps up to the second floor. The canopied bed is copied from a Dover book on furniture. Several rooms have exquisite gold-framed mirrors. In the living room, with its Robertson fire screen, is a harpsichord made by another master, Glenn Gotheil. The doors are all paneled. The chimneys are overgrown with ivy, and the patios are paved with brick.
Other houses on the tour have other marvels.
The collection of Beverly Norris and Marshall Norris Rawson, McLean mother and daughter, includes a real prize -- an 18th-century Nuremberg kitchen. "Its purpose," according to Norris, "was to teach young girls how to run a kitchen that had over 100 items. Most cooking was done on a large, open, brick hearth, fueled by charcoal, using copper kettles. The 18th-century kettles, pans, stirring and serving utensils and steins are all shining as if ready for an inspection. A 20th-century cook could be surprised at the way chicken was kept -- in the corner sits a chicken coop."
The Norris/Rawson collection includes more than 45 houses, stables, farms, shops and row houses. The family founded Hood Dairy, so they were tickled to find a toy horse-drawn Hood milk wagon. "We restored the missing horse's tail with hair from a genuine Hood horse," according to Norris.
Patricia and Marilyn Paradise of Falls Church have miniature Christmas decorations, a tiny gift shop with antiques, crystal, silver and china, and a second-hand shop made by Ed Norton with old-fashioned bedsprings, a tiny brass box with brass dominoes, and a gold microscope.
The dioramas in the Fairfax Hotel bar (to encourage sobriety?) were made by Pauline and George Greene of Concord, Mass. A ballroom scene shows the music playing and a few people left drinking champagne.
Lady Henderson's antique shop and mice house also will be shown at the Fairfax.
The miniature of Sandra Williams of Wheaton is adapted from the restored 1717 Brush-Everard House of Colonial Williamsburg. Mel Havenner of College Park built the house, with staircase and floors by Robertson. Its William and Mary, Queen Anne and Chippendale miniature furniture includes 40- and 60-mesh needlework.
Harriette Peacock of Indian Head built her Danish Modern house in 1977, even though few modern miniatures are for sale. The shingles are made from scraps of veneer, fake fur carpets the floors and vertical bamboo blinds are made from placemats. Her modern house and one copied from Westover on the James River will be displayed at Craft, Kit & Caboodle along with collections by the owners, Bob and Sharon Wolozin.
Emily King's dollhouse collection in Arlington includes a house from the Confederacy, complete with a Confederate general stretched out on a bed, looking at a a stripper through a minuscule ivory stereoscopic viewer.
King started her collection 20 years ago. She has a wine glass from Queen Mary's famous dollhouse, Rose Cottage, with real antique wallpaper, big-game trophies on the wall and even a plantation kitchen scene with a goat.
Betty Dean of Bethesda has an 1883 Georgetown house with a weathervane on its turret and 10 rooms, "updated to the 1930s," said Dean, and furnished with a Robertson clock and Biedermeyer miniatures from Waltershausen in Germany.