When my siblings and I were stuck in the house long enough to get tired of television, Parcheesi and prank telephone calls, there was always "up in the attic."
It was the attic of a funky, frame Victorian house, with no pretensions of being "finished." There were no toys in our attic but we didn't need them. Where the floor left off, adventure began. You could crawl under the eaves, where it was quite dark except for a hole big enough to let in some light. You had to step gingerly on the wood framework and be careful not to touch any of the old, uninsulated wires, which might or might not electrocute you. This prospect made it exciting, as did the fact that it was strictly forbidden territory. But the thing that gave the adventure a meaningful goal was the secret room.
It wasn't really a room at all, just a place where a floor had been built and the passage made wider. On the platform was a chair and a desk with nothing on it but a much-used candle. How did it get there? What was it used for? Not even the most avid reader of Nancy Drew mysteries could figure it out.
Now, my family and I live in a funky Victorian house, but it doesn't have an attic. Fortunately, there's an old-fashioned attic that every child can visit.You don't have to crawl under the eaves; just follow a docent up the winding staircases and through the long passages of the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters to the Children's Attic.
"I wish I could go in and play!" said six-year-old Caroline, standing at the railing that separates the 20th-century children from the 18th- and 19th-century toys and dolls in an attic-like room under the building's eaves.
There are bisque-faced porcelain dolls sitting on doll-size chairs having a tea party with an exquisite -- probably rarely played with -- blue-and-white procelain tea set, child's size. There's a real "skin" rocking horse and an iron bank where the donkey kicks up his heels when you feed him a coin. There's an old-fashioned baby walker made of wood and leather instead of plastic, and dozens of doll-size and child-size beds, rockers and tables. There are miniature hutches, just like mother's, with pots and pans and dishes and the wherewithal for playing house.
There's a Magic Mirror of Wonderful Transformations, an 1870 version of television. There's a series of cards that don't look like anything until you look at them in a cylindrical mirror. And there's a large, pillared dollhouse where you can press your nose against the glass and peer into rooms filled with antique pianos and canopied beds. The kids, however, notice the practical things.
"Look at all the potties!" giggles six-year-old Corinna, seeing tiny porcelain chamber pots under every bed.
The 20th-century children are also attracted to a blown-up photograph of Elizabeth Carroll, who was about their age back in 1880. She's sitting in an ornate wicker chair holding a bisque doll with yellow hair. The same doll -- mirabile dictu all in one piece -- sits in the same glass case as the photograph.
If they take good care of them, the girls ask, will their Barbie dolls be so enshrined a hundred years from now? Our guide shudders at the prospect, then goes on to show us the toys that taught moral lessons.
What purports to be the first board game, "The Mansion of Happiness," was touted in 1843 as "instructive, moral and entertaining." According to the instructions, the idea was to "wind one's way with as few setbacks as possible toward the goal of happiness."
There are also little mugs that were presented "as a reward for writing well," and some toys geared to negative reinforcement. The most lurid examples of these are the Frozen Charlotte dolls, lying icy white in a glass case.
"There was an old courting story," explains our guide." A couple stepped outside to be alone and didn't want to come in. Charlotte froze to death."
Nine-year-old Tabitha asked the obvious questions: "What was the boy's name? Did he freeze to death, too?"
Well, my dear, there was this thing called the double standard... EXPLORING THE ATTIC
The Children's Attic is one of about 30 rooms at the DAR Museum. Children also find things to interest them in the other rooms, including Quaker wedding dresses, colonial baby bottles made of pewter and a replica of a room straight out of "Little House on the Prairie." The museum, at 1776 D Street NW, is free and open 1 to 5 Sundays, 9 to 4 Monday through Friday.