|The Dolls of Shelburne|
|By Scott Wood for Doll Reader magazine|
Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt., is so large, containing such a world-class collection of seemingly everything, it is understandable that the doll collection might be overlooked. Visitors, however, might do well to start a tour of Shelburne with the dolls. Electra Havemeyer Webb, the museum's founder, started her "collection of collections" with them.
The dolls are in what is called the Variety Unit, one of 37 buildings that comprise Shelburne Museum. In 1947, upon the retirement of her husband, James Watson Webb, the grandson of William Henry Vanderbilt, the Webbs settled in Vermont. Electra, who by her own admission, "couldn't let good pieces go by...," decided to actively pursue her dream of a museum with which she could share her treasures. During the first year in the village of Shelburne, she bought a house known locally as the Weed House. She turned the rooms and hallways into galleries for her glass, silver, early American pewter, ceramics, and dolls and miniatures. The house is now known as the Variety Unit because that is what it contains-a great variety of things. Though it was the first building of Shelburne Museum, it is the farthest building from the entrance to the entire complex.
If you are indeed a doll enthusiast and do want to spend some time with the dolls, try not to venture into too many of the other buildings along the way to the Variety Unit. Save them for later. If you start to wander into the other buildings (which, after all, you can visit later), the walk to the dolls could take hours.
When you arrive at the Variety Unit, you first must tour the first floor and inspect the glass, ceramics, silver, and Britannia, a new and improved kind of pewter (stronger and brighter and, like pewter, it could be rolled out as a sheet and spun over a wooden form on a lathe). The lighting in the Variety Unit, as it is in several of the buildings of Shelburne, seems at first somewhat dim. The subdued lighting, however, in addition to protecting the artifacts also serves to focus on the items in the cases, which are illuminated. That these things are displayed in a house-that still has the layout of a house-also makes the displays especially satisfying to visitors. If the house had been unrecognizably converted into a museum in the modern, candy-colored, hands-on sense, the 18th and 19th century bottles and blown and twisted glass canes and the kitchen lined with shelves of pewter would have seemed out of place and remote as merely artifacts.
The Very First Collection
The doll rooms are reached by a narrow, bent stairway. At the top of the stairs, the visitor comes upon a couple of displays, both of early dolls and miniatures. The collection proper is in the next room, and continues, each room leading to another. Consequently, one doesn't realize at first the size of the collection. Additionally, as one passes through the connected rooms, one sees only the dolls in each room; the cases around the next corner hold surprises.
According to a quote of Electra Havemeyer Webb, framed and displayed on the wall, one might say that Shelburne Museum, containing the largest collection of American folk art in the world, began as a doll collection. The quote reads as follows: "I inherited my taste for collecting from my parents, Mr. And Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer, who left a large part of their collection of European art to the Museum of Art in New York City. When I was a young girl, my grandmother, Matilda Adeline Waldron Elder, dressed small dolls for me as gifts for such special occasions as Christmas or my birthday. Instead of playing with them, I treasured them so much that I kept them together as a collection to enjoy. Hence, they became my very first collection."
Finally, The Dolls
Early wooden and shell dolls start the collection. Wood is recognized by most doll historians as one of the oldest doll materials. Wooden dolls have been discovered in tombs in Egypt. For many peoples, wood was readily available and was an elastic medium, respondent to a workman's most complex designs. One of the oldest dolls in the collection is a Queen Anne wooden doll, dated 1742.
Shell dolls were popular souvenirs of seaside resorts during the Victorian era. The dolls were basically composed of shells arranged and glued onto a small wooden body form. As anyone who, under the direction of children, has carted home from the beach a small sea of shells, knows, shells are brittle and break all over the house. The arm-load of shell dolls at Shelburne allows the visitor a rare opportunity to see shell dolls whole, just as they were when they were sold at the shore. More of these dolls can been found in the Hat and Fragrance Textile Gallery, which is next to the incredible toy collection, which is next door to the Variety Unit.
As one slowly moves from case to case, in a drifting museum waltz, one sees elegant bisque head dolls, wearing explosions of ruffles and lace. The china hair rises in fluid, elaborate curls, complements to the fancy dresses. Dolls made by Bru, Steiner, Jumeau, Kestner, and Simon & Halbig are represented here. For the most part, individual dolls are not identified; placards describing types or categories of dolls are displayed near appropriate cases. Dolls of different eras and materials stare passively out of the lighted cases, inviting scrutiny. One overall effect is that visitors simply look at the dolls for themselves, as dolls, regardless of the makers, dates, and collectors' market values. While the collection could use a little more narration (just about every doll does have some interesting, often odd, history), the lack of signs is liberating for many collectors who only want to gaze at the faces and costumes, and to compete with their compatriots in identifying the dolls themselves.
More Treasures, Plus Miniatures
Another highlight of the collection are the automata-mechanical musical dolls of the late 19th century. This group, all from Europe, includes a monkey in marching band regalia, ready to bang a drum; an opium smoker; a gaudy (and slightly sinister-looking) magician; and an "Oriental Woman Pouring Tea, circa 1860-1880."
A collection of dolls' houses and miniature furniture is part of the larger collection. More than 20 dolls' houses and, according to information published by the museum, "1200 doll accessories that echo in miniature the Museum's collections of buildings, furniture, ceramics, hatboxes, and household furnishings" are displayed here and there, complementing the entire doll collection. Many of the houses and parts of houses were decorated by Electra Havemeyer Webb herself. One especially memorable building, located in a room of the doll collection proper, is the Female Seminary Doll House. Built in the 1870s by a Frenchman with the great name, Jeanbaptiste-Jaacquemin, this house was furnished by Helen Bruce of Los Angeles, California, with miniatures collected by Electra Webb. The dolls' house is furnished so it tells a story of two sisters who have opened a School for Young Ladies in order to keep the family house after their father had died. One daughter teaches piano lessons on the second floor. The other teacher, who has had training in "female accomplishments," is out on the house steps "directing sports." A hired teacher is holding forth in a first-floor room.
Visitors invariably double-back and, in a quiet, yet somewhat desperate rush, attempt to see things they think they might have missed.
But eventually it is time to go. Time does indeed fly, especially at Shelburne. And Shelburne Museum is very, very big.
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