The Morris-Canby-Rumford Dolls’ House
By Maureen Wlodarczyk
I often (happily) refer to myself as a history “addict.” My addiction comes in various forms including a passion for genealogy and a love of antiques and folk art. Whether it be searching for elusive ancestors or hunting for treasures in dusty rows of tables at antiques and flea markets, it’s all a treat for me. When it comes to antiques, I am particularly drawn to miniature and child-size items . . . including dollhouse furniture and accessories.
Many years ago I fell in love with a wonderful early 19th century dollhouse I saw on exhibit at Colonial Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. Each time I visited Williamsburg, I made it a point to go back to that museum to see that dollhouse again. Known as the Morris-Canby-Rumford House (reflecting its descent through successive family generations), this Federal-style wooden dollhouse was originally made and furnished in 1820 for twin sisters by their grandfather. It is an all-at-once folky but imposing structure measuring about 53 inches tall with two wide hinged front doors that open to reveal four large rooms: kitchen, bedroom, dining room and parlor. The exterior of the house is painted to resemble red brick and has five painted front windows, the lower two with painted shutters. Painted fan window detail tops the double width front door and is repeated on the front peak of the house. A faux dormer projects from each side of the peaked roof. Just imagine how many children in the extended Morris family played with that dollhouse between 1820 and 1981 when it was donated to Colonial Williamsburg!
About ten years ago I got a brainstorm: I would build a replica of the Morris-Canby-Rumford dollhouse and then begin the hunt for antique furnishings and accessories to decorate it. I decided to design a slightly scaled down version (about 40 inches tall including the turned feet), sketched it out and enlisted the aid of my husband when it came to power tools and construction questions. Over several weeks the house began to take its basic shape as the exterior wood frame was cut and nailed together. The roof panels and faux dormers were installed, followed by the hinged front doors and, finally, the interior walls and floors. I found unfinished large wood finials at Home Depot that, turned upside-down, became the feet of the dollhouse.
With construction complete, it was time to paint the house. I did a blue and off-white diamond pattern floor-cloth look for the kitchen floor and stained the other three floors. Walls and ceilings were off-white. The roof was easy – a couple coats of flat black. The same flat black was used for the windows and off-white was used for the shutters, window mullions, front door and steps. After that it was time to put on my mason’s hat and “brick” the exterior walls and roof peak. That proved quite the challenge. Using a scrap of wood, I tested my proposed process for painting the brick. It worked but it would be time-sensitive. First I painted the exterior walls in off-white and let that thoroughly dry. Then came step two: painting over that off-white base coat with brick red paint and, while the red paint was still wet, scoring it with a fork to create the grout lines for the brick. There’s an old expression used to describe extremely boring or slow-moving activities or events: “it’s like watching paint dry.” When it came to “bricking” my dollhouse, nothing could have been further from the truth. All my energy was focused on getting that fork moving (horizontally and vertically) before that red paint could dry – and I can tell you that I had red paint from my fingertips to my elbows each time I completed one of those wall sections!
When the painting was complete, inside and out, I was very pleased with the end result and very excited at the thought of furnishing my dollhouse. Over time I hunted down some lovely old furniture and accessories. I even contacted one of the Rumford family members, sending photos of my dollhouse and sharing the story of how my love for their family’s dollhouse had inspired me to build a copy. I received a gracious reply that included a Christmas card in the form of a replica of the Morris-Canby-Rumford dollhouse. Of course, that inspired me to do likewise and, yes, one year our family Christmas card was a replica of my own dollhouse.
Even now, ten years after building my dollhouse, looking inside still brings a wide smile to my face. I love opening its doors so visitors can enjoy taking in all there is to see and I thoroughly enjoy answering their questions and seeing the looks of amazement when I explain how old some of the furnishings are. Preserving the past through genealogy, writing, and collecting has brought me joy and satisfaction. What better addiction could one ask for?
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