Land of the Wee

Where else can you decorate the bordello and exercise godlike powers?

I’ve been researching old-time brothels, and it turns out that they were lovely places. They had nannies to take care of the babies that are a side effect of that particular business, and barbershops with showers where the clients could freshen up after they’d been upstairs. The madams were as jolly as Mrs. Santa Claus. Louis Armstrong played the piano in the bar. And if the authorities raided the place, you could just scoop them up and drop them into a box. After all, they were only five inches tall.

Perhaps you didn’t realize that dollhouse miniature brothels are a collectors’ item. How about miniature street people? How about miniature outhouses—you’ve never heard of those? You are so, so out of it.

Dollhouse miniatures are toys that you would never let a child touch or even breathe on. They’re for grown-ups—obsessive grown-ups, like me. The most popular miniature scale is one inch to one foot; in other words, a three-fourths-inch birthday cake with one-fifth-inch candles would correspond to a normal nine-inch cake. More finicky collectors and builders work in one-half-inch and one-quarter-inch scales. The truly insane work in 1/144th-inch scale—in other words, 12 times smaller than the standard. (“Dollhouses for dollhouses,” as they say.) I’ve always been a one-inch scale person, which drives me crazy enough. I have more tweezers in my basement than I do in all my medicine cabinets combined, and using them to glue 1/16th-inch stamps onto one-half-inch envelopes makes me sweat and swear more than getting stuck in any traffic jam.

We tend to think of America as the land of the supersized, but when you look closely, you realize that the entire country is also “supershrunk” somewhere. Well, maybe not the entire country. I’ve never seen a miniature sweatshop, but I’ve seen plenty of miniature Depression glass. Also miniature Titanic menus. Also a re-created “corset” scene from Gone with the Wind, with acrylic cameramen and a tiny boom mike. Also a miniature travois of the sort used by the North American Plains Indians, countless miniature fishing shacks and three-inch shawls hand-knitted with silk as thin as an eyelash.

Working on this kind of thing is a good way to trick yourself into thinking you’re a historian. I’ve been furnishing an 1880s miniature general store for three years. I don’t like to do anything in a, sorry, small way, so this project has required that I subscribe to several miniatures magazines, visit miniatures conventions and museums around the country and spend 1,000 percent of my income on tiny jars of laudanum, minuscule potatoes and half-inch mahogany View-Masters with miniature 1880s photographs in them. (As I said, this is a general store.) Because I’m the storekeeper, I can stock it with whatever I want—even a miniature can of tomatoes that didn’t appear on the market until the early 1900s. “I knew you wouldn’t keep it in period,” a friend of mine scoffed. But what can happen to me? In this weensy world, I’m in charge.

Miniatures let you play god in all kinds of incarnations. (Which is why, in the photo of the miniature bordello with Louis Armstrong at the piano—featured in a recent issue of Miniature Collector—a doll who appears to be Elvis is standing next to him.) You can “distress” furniture that looks out of period. No need to let it weather naturally: there are compounds specifically created for aging dollhouse wood! You can put a cat next to a fishbowl and know that she’ll never knock it over.

And you can arrange your miniature street people in your miniature town square without feeling sorry for them. They’ll never be hungry or cold; the worst they face is dust. Miniaturizing solves all kinds of social problems. I wonder if this has occurred to the gods who play with us?