Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Of Putolas, Dolls and Poppenhuis

     One of my warmest memories, is of sitting down on the cool floor of my grandmother's home in Tipling in the summer holidays and watch her put together bits and pieces of left over cloth, to fashion out rag dolls for me. The fan from the false ceiling  whirred to keep the humid air at bay. At times a gentle cool air breezed in through the open wooden doors and windows. She worked on nimbly sewing and stuffing the head, the torso, the limbs, and right before my fascinated eyes putolas (dolls) were created. My eldest mami (aunt chipped in to put together a trousseau for the bride and the groom and also a little mattress with sheets, a quilt and pillows. So much love and ingenuity went into making those rag dolls, giving life to a little girl's world of fantasy! 

   And then came in dolls, the plastic ones whose eye lids closed when in sleeping position and blue eyes revealed when put upright. The talking dolls were the sought after ones, seen only in the neighbour's house. And now, assembly line produced Barbies, Monster dolls and the likes have taken over with politically incorrect and then corrected versions ruling the roost where one damaged doll is immediately replaced by the next available one. That their enticing and coordinated ensembles of kitchen, trousseaus, and other accessories shred the pockets is an understatement.

   That was until we visited the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam and strolling through the galleries absorbing the  masters' creations adorning the walls we came across Petronella Oortman. Well not really Petronella herself but a miniature version of her home in the seventeenth century Netherlands. Doll's houses in those days were no child's play. They were serious hobbies of the rich Dutch ladies often the centerpiece in any living room vying for attention with the men's obsession of curiosity  cabinets. They were reflections of the Golden Age of Netherlands when the economy of the country flourished following the successful tradings across the globe. While the men's curiosity cabinet was the fabled Ali Baba's cave displaying the objects collected from their many travels around the world, the women's doll houses were an example of a perfect Dutch household. They revealed the world of a rich woman who had enough means to commission a home complete with miniature paintings, furniture, crockery and cutlery and abundant leisure time to indulge in them.

 For the last  four centuries Petronella Oortman's doll house, where every detail is made to scale and with materials used in the real world, has been a fine window to the lifestyle of the rich Dutch homes.

Petronella Oortman's Doll House

 A rich silk merchant's wife, Petronella Oortman had this doll house commissioned in the year 1686, the year of her marriage with Johannes Brandt. A cabinet of tortoise shell with fine pewter inlay work, it is the most famous of the three other doll houses in the Rijks Museum. There is always a queue to climb up the little stepladder to peer at Oortman's indulgence whose collection for the interiors continued till 1710.  The kind of exquisite detailed work that can be housed within the dimensions of 8.36 ft x 6.23 ft x 2.55 ft, left us gaping with wonder. Let me take you on a room by room tour of this exquisite doll house that could also be a peek into their lives. 


The Linen Room

The top left room, on the second floor is the linen room with perfectly crafted wicker baskets, the irons on the ironing table, the curtains, a place where the linen of the house, blankets etc are stored. Please note the linen hung out to dry from the ceiling. 


                                                  The Box Room / The Servant's Room

Next to the Linen Room on the second floor is the box room where the servants of the house retired. In the right corner is the spinning wheel. It is said to have a chamber pot and foot warmers.

      The right corner room on the second floor, next to the servant's room is the nursery of the house with gold drapings and parrot painted screens. Perhaps in our excitement or the many people waiting to take a turn  we missed out on taking a snap of this pretty room.

Living Room

        The exquisitely carved furniture with rich upholstery, floor to ceiling murals, the paintings on the wall are all  original artwork of artists commissioned for the purpose. A backgammon table is at the centre and in the corner is a folding table with a colourful parrot painted on a black background. 


The central room on the first floor is the main entrance at the street level. You can see the marble flooring and the carved interiors. Don't miss the painting on the ceiling and the framed artwork on the wall! Beyond it, on the other side,  was a garden complete with a working fountain! Sadly with time, these have been lost. The living room is actually to the left of this central entry.

                                                                     Lying In Room

         To the right of this entry is the Lying In room where the lady of the house gave birth. The room is done up in red with a curtained bed tucked in at the back wall and a screen for privacy. To the right of the screen you can see the closet where the linen is stacked neatly. Silver candlestands on the walls, porcelain tea set and a crib complete the picture. This is the only room that has a doll in it whereas all the others have been lost, once again with time.

                                                                 Best Kitchen

                 The house has two kitchens. On the bottom left is the 'Best Kitchen' where the owners entertained  and dined with their guests. This is the room where fine tableware is on display.  In and above the cabinet are fine detailed porcelain, all made to order in China. A pretty bird cage is hung from the ceiling on the left corner of the room. Please note the ceiling, the paintings, the cabinet doors and the floor. Delightful, isn't it?


          Next to it is the real kitchen with a fireplace and a sink, where actual cooking was done for the family. It is said that it also had a working water pump once.


                                                          Tapestry Room

         The bottom right corner of the room is the tapestry room. The walls are covered completely with tapestry and comparatively is a sparse room and  soberly done up. This was also the mourning room where friends and relatives gathered to mourn or honour the dead. 

    Petronella Oortman commissioned basket weavers, glass blowers, artists, cabinet makers and the lot to make miniature replicas for her doll house. It was strange that every essential act of life had a dedicated room except the room where the couple of the house retired. There was a room for birth, for the child, the cooking and eating rooms and even one dedicated to the dead. Strangely we did not see a bedroom where the lord and the lady of the house retired for the day. Was it fine sensibility that inhibited the wealthy ladies from displaying a room that could hint at their private lives? Similarly there were no rooms or doors that hinted at the presence of bathrooms or servants entry.   What made women like Petronella Oortman and Petronella Dunois ( another wealthy lady) splurge on doll houses that cost as much as a real house near the canals? Oortman is believed to have spent twenty to thirty thousand guilds on her doll house which was equivalent to the cost of a real house on the canal. Was it time hanging heavy on their hands while their merchant husbands were out travelling to distant places  ? Or was it the necessity to be ostentatious in their display of wealth as a mark of having arrived? Petronella Oortman was so taken in with her passion for the little home that she even had the noted artist Jacob Appel paint a version of it, which hangs next to the real one in the Rijks Museum.


                                  Painting of Petronella Oortman's Doll House by Jacob Appel

         Later, a bit of research led to the fact that the wealthy merchants in the 17th century Amsterdam were at the peak of the social structure having once led the revolt against Spain. From then on, they influenced the government's decisions and policies rooting for those, that would encourage economic progress. These were the families that inhabited the beautiful houses on the elm lined avenues along the newly constructed three semi circular canals and the many of their links, radials and the existing canals. History has it that the Dutch  merchants were extremely enterprising and could trade in almost anything despite Netherlands having limited resources. They bought unfinished woollens from England, grains from Poland and other European countries, salt from Denmark, metal work from Sweden, wool from spanish sheep and sold them wherever needed. This was supported by a strong maritime fleet both in terms of the sturdy ships and their defence. 

      A religion tolerant country, Amsterdam attracted all the persecuted migrants and so thrived the skilled artisans of lace making, artists, intellectuals, glass blowers, jews who contributed with their exquisite work. It was no doubt dubbed as the 'market place of the Northern Europe' as it provided warehouses, insurance agents, wholesale dealers, brokers along with ship building, leasing and docking facilities.

     It is easy to imagine, a whirlwind of commercial activities taking place out side these canal homes pushing the envelope with new found places and colonies. And within the homes the ladies quietly went about managing the business and homes in the long absence of their husbands. So did these doll houses while filling up their vacant time also give flight to their imaginations? 

        Below is yet another doll house curated by Petronella Dunois. Curating doll houses was actually a fad that started in Nuremberg and caught on like wild fire in rest of Germany, Netherlands and England too. 

Doll House of Petronella Dunois

        These doll houses have let people peer at the lives and the world of the wealthy Dutch for the last four centuries. The tiny step ladder that leads up for a good view is always occupied with visitors. Later, walking along the avenues of Amsterdam by the canals, it was  surprising to see the homes of modern day Amsterdam,  with huge windows either clear of any drapes or lightly covered with sheer curtains. It felt like the owners graciously allowed the passers by to gaze and admire the beautifully done up homes with nothing to hide. They could be  boat houses on the canals or the lovely town houses with similar facades.



  1. That's a serious hobby.
    So interesting! It's really nice to know that there are places where doll houses are no child's play.

    So exquisite. They do look expensive.
    Thank you for this post, Ilakshee.

  2. Unbelievable that people can spend so much for dolls. At first I thought these were rooms of real people till I read your article Mikiba. What a strange way of amusement...

  3. I love the Doll House.
    Lovely details :)

  4. I smiled reading and getting nostalgic myself as you spoke of your childhood and then I was amazed at the detail you gave of the Rijks museum :) superb Ilakshee :)

  5. DNambiar, you bet they are! but every bit of it is worth it!

  6. Pahari, they look so real, it's to be seen to be believed! Thank you!

  7. Shweta, the different kind of dolls and the memories they stir! Thank you, your words are always encouraging!

  8. Ah well,this is a revelation--such amazing details and such a lot of money spent.As you said,perhaps these ladies took up this hobby to entertain themselves while their husbands were away.

    But you know Ilakshi,what i liked best about this post was the very first sentence.Those rag dolls were so very dear.I think were saturated with our moms'love and care.I used to snatch up every tiny piece of material discarded by my mom when she stitched and then i would fashion my doll's clothes.

  9. Ahh, the indulgences of the moneyed class with plenty of time to kill.

  10. My first comment got lost.
    Thanks for reminding me of the rag dolls--they had a life which Barbies lack.

  11. Wow ....such an elaborately done doll house ? Amazing


Your words keep me going :)