The Rise of Household Manuals and Early Modern Dutch Dollhouse: The Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century Home as Laboratory and Site of Knowledge Production
The Netherlands witnessed a distinct rise in the publication of a variety of household manuals and guides in the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century, presaged by early cookbooks and conduct guides as harbingers of this genre amongst which household advice was often interspersed. These texts addressed the functional and aesthetic aspects of the domestic realm. Household manuals drew new attention to the home as a space that merited an increased level of attention in order to correctly organize it, a virtue that had long been compressed with moral values in the Netherlands. A new genre of household manuals at this time speaks to the emerging view of home as a realm in need of a distinct set of rules and guidelines, aimed at Dutch homemakers (huishouders) who were described as” managers” of these critical spheres. This study offers a deeper analysis of the collection, materiality, and display of seventeenth-and-eighteenth-century Dutch dollhouses through the prism of household management texts as an entirely overlooked attendant to the ways in which concepts of home and gender were comprehended in the early modern Netherlands. Dutch dollhouses were collections assembled by women, and took the form of lavish miniature households made of luxury materials. The dollhouses were kept in large cabinets that imitated the architecture of the Dutch home. In choosing which rooms to display in the dollhouse, we find a selective focus on spaces that showcase domestic abilities by emphasizing the presence of kitchens, rooms for preserving foods, preparing medicaments, and practicing alchemy, as well as kunstkamers that comment on the owner’s active interest in exploring the wonders of the natural world.
I argue that analyzing the early modern Dutch dollhouse by way of prescriptive household texts can shed a light on the important role the domestic world played in larger epistemic networks. These collections constituted and reflected a form of sophisticated knowledge-making by women channeled through the practices of household management, cookery, and domestic chemistry, all structured for the home in ways that engage with manuals and guides devoted to home management. In this regard, the dollhouse itself becomes an instructional ideal that visualizes the Dutch home as a practical and moral exemplar under the guidance of the skilled huishouder. A key goal of this study is to emphasize the contributions of women in the early modern Netherlands as they employed the domestic sphere as a realm for the exploration of “natural” knowledge; with the exception of a few figures such as Agneta Block and Maria Sibylla Merian, women who used the home as a laboratory and site of knowledge-making have been largely excluded from the study of early modern Netherlandish knowledge networks. Contrary to this, dollhouses suggest that it is not women who lack engagement with wider information systems of the day, rather, by widening an understanding of scholarly approaches to knowledge production, the participation and contributions of women in this area comes into clearer focus.