A Patriotic Dollhouse

The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War presents a unique opportunity for us all to look back at one of the defining events in U.S. history and reflect on the many ways in which it changed the country forever.  It’s sometimes hard for me to imagine the sheer scale of this war and the numerous (and sometimes unexpected) ways in which it touched so many aspects of American life.  People were forced to revisit the very idea of a United States and what it meant to be an American. During this time period, the idea of nationhood assumed a new relevance; and concepts such as patriotism and national unity became more important than ever to a country on the verge of splitting apart.  It is these very ideas that are of interest to our latest researcher Heather Paroubek.  Heather, a Masters Degree candidate in Art History at Syracuse University, is focusing her research on patriotic symbolism in one of our most important Civil War era artifacts: our McComb dollhouse.

Our dollhouse, so called after its original owner, Wilmingtonian Henry S. McComb (1825-1881), was acquired by McComb at the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair which took place in June 1864.  The staging of so-called sanitary fairs was a very successful public fundraising tactic used during the Civil War to raise much-needed funds for the Union Army.  These fairs were held in various large cities throughout the north and supported the work of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a private volunteer relief agency created in 1861 to provide medical support and supplies to Union troops.  The purpose of sanitary fairs was to inspire patriotic fervor in the public while getting them to part with as much money as possible to support the Union cause. Visitors paid an admission charge and, once inside, they could get food, tour patriotic exhibits, and purchase a wide variety of items that had been donated for sale.  The first of these sanitary fairs was held in Chicago in 1863, and so exceeded expectations that other large cities such as New York and Philadelphia soon followed suit with their own fairs.

Philadelphia’s fair was held in Logan Square.  The main exhibit building, named Union Avenue, contained a variety of items which had been placed on public exhibit for sale. Our McComb dollhouse was one of these items.  Although we often call it a dollhouse, it was actually displayed in the section for model houses, indicating that it was meant to be a showpiece and not a toy (dollhouses for children had their own section). Model houses were meant to showcase the work of local craftsmen and were built and furnished with great care. What would later become the McComb dollhouse was donated for sale by Miss Catharine Biddle of Philadelphia.

The McComb dollhouse stands over 5 ½ feet high and contains three floors of nine rooms with a central hallway on each floor,  in addition to a widow’s walk on the roof and stairway that runs the full height of the house.  It was designed by Philadelphia architects Edward Collins and Charles Autenrieth (active c. 1854-1904) in the Italianate style they favored for their full-sized buildings.  It was actually built by local carpenter Michael Errickson of 1322 Pine Street in Philadelphia.  Many other mostly local craftsmen then furnished the house from top to bottom with finely detailed miniature samples of their crafts: everything from crockery to curtains and carpets! There is also no mistaking the loyalties of those involved in creating the house, since the front door bears a silver nameplate for “U.S. Grant.” The end result was a beautifully detailed and very fashionable mid-Victorian house for a wealthy upper class family. One of the most striking features of the house is its miniature art gallery, which contains works by noted artists such as Peter Frederick Rothermel (1817-1895) and Edmund Darch Lewis (1835-1910).

Organizers at the fair valued the house at $1000 and proposed to dispose of it by selling subscriptions on it at ten dollars each.  Purchasing a subscription meant that the buyers could decide what should happen to the house at the end of the fair (this was a common fundraising tactic for exhibited items).  In total, the dollhouse netted $2368.  How exactly Henry McComb ended up with it is not entirely crystal clear. Another Wilmington visitor to the fair, Emalea Pusey Warner (1853-1948), recalled that McComb “won the dollhouse by chance.” Letters from the time of the donation also state that McComb won the house as a prize at the fair.  Whether he won it in some sort of lottery or because other subscribers thought he should have it is not known.  Whatever happened, McComb became the dollhouse’s new owner and he had it brought back to Wilmington and installed on the third floor of his home at 11th and Market Streets.  Upon his death the house passed to his daughter Nellie McComb Winchester and then to her daughters Mrs. Thomas Starr King and Mrs. E.W. Jackson, who donated it to the Society in 1943. 

It seems that Nellie and her daughters were not allowed to play with the dollhouse as children but later generations were, and it is likely that there are a few missing pieces.  However, the house and its furnishings have survived remarkably intact through the years and there was still plenty for our researcher Heather to go through.  Her thesis is slated for completion in May of this year and we look forward to getting a new perspective on this fabulous Civil War era relic.


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