Archaic Expectations: Freeing Female Roles From A Dollhouse In Society Hill

 

Not much was known about the dollhouse in a dark, back passageway of Powel House at 244 South 3rd Street until Mickey Herr went searching for its history. | Photo: Michael Bixler

If  “play is the beginnings of knowledge” as the 19th century anthropologist George A. Dorsey espoused, what can we learn from the toys of our childhood? What can we learn from the toys of our ancestors? The #MeToo movement has found many women (and hopefully a few good men) looking back on lessons learned, both implicit and overt, and pondering: What ideas have we received about how life should be lived and where did these messages originate? From Victorian Fashion Dolls to Barbie’s Dreamhouse and the newest American Girl “Truly Me” doll, are we still in our childhood playrooms acting out the same narratives in a world that struggles with change? A challenge to look more closely at a dusty old dollhouse, a lucky find at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art has me rethinking the ideological advances of women in society and the retrogressive nature of our current era.

The dollhouse in question resides in a back passage of Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks’ Powel House on South 3rd Street. As a former house site manager I spent time thinking about this dollhouse, and, honestly, I never much cared for it. The toy model has a forlorn creepiness compounded by its shadowy location. And despite its relative remoteness inside the museum, the dollhouse always seemed in the way, especially as it has nothing to do with the Powel family history. I mostly ignored it and gave a rote answer when visitors inquired about it. Referring to a guidebook I would respond, “Owned by the Cadwalader family, whose family portraits and furniture can be seen in the Powel Room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Used by six generations of daughters, all named Anne,”

In the bottom left corner of the dollhouse is a text panel listing seven generations of women named Anne. It’s a frustrating list with no context of dates or relationships between the women. Were they mothers and daughters? Aunts? Cousins? Were they named Anne so that they all would inherit this object? Was this dollhouse really built in the early 19th century or was this all just a fabrication?

The Cadwalader family is an old Philadelphia family. Sophia Cadwalader, along with other relations, was among the earliest supporters of Frances Anne Wister’s vision in creating the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks and the renovation of the Powel House into a house museum in the 1930s. Through the years I have met a Cadwalader descendent or two who were dismayed by my lack of excitement about “their” dollhouse. Two more recent encounters would finally cause me to reconsider my apathy. First was a discussion with Dr. Hilary Lowe, a professor at Temple University. Her training in history combined with women’s studies allowed her to see what I could not. This dollhouse is more than an outdated plaything. It is a goldmine of information. This notion was driven home on a recent visit to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, when I came across an astounding passage in a memoir written by Mary Cadwalader Jones.

The following is a first-hand account of the dollhouse written sometime in the early 1900s, looking back to the 1850s. Mary Cadwalader Jones was born in 1850, and her mother died in 1861.

“At proper intervals my mother took me to see my grandfather, Judge John Cadwalader, where his mulatto butler, Burns whose manner would have become any bishop, often ushered us into his office, two large rooms on the ground floor, fairly over-run with law books…. My grandfather was very kind, but after a while I was glad to be allowed to go upstairs to the fourth storey [sic] to look at the old baby-house.”

This list notes seven generations of Annes that have owned the dollhouse at Powel House. | Photo: Michael Bixler

“This doll’s house had been made for some child of the family about 1800, and although generations of little hands had been hard on its furnishings much of them still remained and would have been the joy of a “period” decorator. I believe it originally had two side wings, in the Southern fashion, but they had disappeared, leaving a square box with a front which opened in the middle disclosing a dining-room, kitchen, drawing-room and bedchamber. The dining-room table, sideboard and chairs were good Chippendale; from the drawing-room ceiling a charming crystal chandelier hung over furniture covered with faded brocade; in the chamber there was a four-poster bed with chintz curtains, a wash-hand-stand with china ewer and basin, a toilet table with looking-glass, and a low chair by the open fireplace with it tiny fire-irons. I think there was also an open hearth in the kitchen; cooking utensils were gone, but a coloured cook, her head covered with a once-bright bandanna, stood waiting, and a coloured butler also waited in the dining-room for the coming of the bride and bridegroom who were upstairs; she in a very yellow white satin and the remnants of a lace veil, and he in what had been a bright blue coat, with silk stockings and minute buckles on his shoes. These dolls were of wood. Everything in the house was in scale and the rooms, as I remember them, were each about two feet square.”

This lengthy, detailed recollection is fairly astounding if you consider the intervening years. While the “good Chippendale” is no longer there, many of the pieces she described are. Her overall description of the house, especially her description of the bride, groom, and their attending servants, is spot on. Mary, born Mary Cadwalader Rawle and known as Minnie to differentiate her form her mother Mary Binney Cadwalader, was born in 1850 in today’s Society Hill. Her personal account of her childhood in Lantern Slides, published in 1937 by Merrymount Press, provides incredible insight into the closely-knit blocks on which she was raised. Minnie was born into a world of extreme privilege. Her forebears—Cadwalader, Rawle, Binney, Tilghman, Chew, and Biddle among others—formed a tight web of influence which created and propagated the American legislature as lawyers, politicians, and military leaders. While James Buchanan was a local friend before his presidency, a 12-year-old Minnie was taken to the White House by her great-uncle General George Cadwalader to meet President Lincoln. She wed the socially-connected New Yorker Freddie Jones and became a mother to a beloved daughter. After she divorced Freddie she kept her sister-in-law, Edith Wharton, as a lifelong best friend. Ultimately, she transformed into a premiere Manhattan saloniste with friends ranging from John Singer Sargent, H.G. Wells, Nikola Tesla, and Theodore Roosevelt. 

The Feminine Ideal

When I recently visited the Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art the metaphorical lightbulbs started flashing. While many visitors saw beautifully crafted dolls with exquisitely outfitted trousseaus, I found the nexus of a forlorn dollhouse, the ultimate society doyenne, and generations of trained little girls. While the dolls and their accoutrement are indeed stellar to behold, I was most captivated by the accompanying text panels that provided context to the dolls. Sarah Josepha Hale and her careful editorial direction of Godey’s Lady’s Book, which taught young privileged girls how to conquer the business of society, was front and center. A panel featuring an 1869 Godey’s quote from Victor Hugo, (Les Misérables, 1862) set the tone.

 “A doll is one of the most imperious wants, and at the same time one of the most delicious instincts, of feminine childhood…. The first child is a continuation of the last doll. A little girl without a doll is nearly as unhappy and quite as impossible as a wife without children.”

Miss French Mary doll from the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition, Little Ladies: Victorian Fashion Dolls and the Feminine Ideal. | Photo: Mickey Herr

The quote was only topped by the text which accompanies “Miss French Mary” wearing her Queen Victoria-inspired white silk wedding dress with wax-and-paper orange blossoms. This doll holds the most prominence standing smack in the middle of the exhibit floor. It literally can’t be missed.

This accompanying passage was written by the pseudonymous writer Melva in Home Whispers: To Husbands and Wives published by the American Female Guardian Society in 1859.  

“To fail of love, honor, peace, and happiness in her domestic relationships is with most women to make a failure of life. Therefore marriage is to her a great event—the great event of her life.” 

Here we are reminded that the only acceptable “career” for girls in the 1800s was marriage and motherhood. The Civil War created intense competition as women greatly outnumbered men. It is here that I paused to envision such pressure. I imagined what it felt like to be dismissed as an old maid by the age of 23 and to be constantly reminded that your appearance would be observed and judged wherever you went. I also thought of my own beloved Madame Alexander bridal doll and tried to remember now as a middle-aged woman and a “wife without children” how I once felt.

I continued to read exhibition text like this: “Victorian society saw women as the preservers of order, decency, and elegance. They were responsible for upholding the period’s strict social customs, which dictated precise behavior and dress for every occasion, from morning calls to mourning dress.”

I asked myself: how much has changed? And so I turned back to that lonely dollhouse, the one I had ignored for years, to follow the line of women named Anne and see if I could make any sense of their collective journey as women responsible for upholding genteel society.

Not Just Women Named Anne

Minnie Cadwalader Jones was correct when she stated that the dollhouse had been made for one of the children of the family around 1800. Yet, it did not originate in the Cadwalader family, but with Sarah Teackle and her husband Charles Nicoll Bancker. The first Anne in the list of seven was their daughter, Anne E. Bancker (1813-1869). I have yet to find proof that the house was specifically made for Anne as she was one of four sisters, including Henrietta, Sarah, and Virginia. Regardless, she never married and had no children so things weren’t off to an auspicious start. It was left to her eldest sister, Henrietta Marie Bancker (McIlvaine) Cadwalader (1806-1889) to ensure the dollhouse became a legacy. As the widow McIlvaine, Henrietta married Judge John Cadwalader in 1833, bringing along her eight-year-old daughter Ellen Maria McIlvaine and presumably the dollhouse. John also had a four-year-old daughter, Mary Binney Cadwalader (mother of Minnie Jones). Henrietta and John would add seven more children to the marriage, including three daughters Sarah, Frances, and Anne. While the youngest Cadwalader daughter, Anne (1842-1929), would be listed as the second Anne on the list, she married the Reverend Henry J. Rowland in 1821 and had only one daughter, Elizabeth.

(left to right) Henrietta Marie Bancker McIlvaine Cadwalader, Anne Cadwalader Rowland (Anne #2), and Anne Bancker Camac Nicoll (Anne #3) with daughter Margaret (mother of Anne #4). | Images: Ancestry.com

At this point the legacy states the dollhouse was given to Anne Bancker Camac (born 1856), who was Henrietta’s granddaughter through her first daughter Ellen Maria McIlvaine and Ellen’s husband Dr. William Camac. From Minnie Cadwalader Jones’ written account, we find the “old baby-house” still residing in the fourth-story of Henrietta and John’s house during the 1850s. Perhaps she, like her cousin Minnie, simply played with it on visits to her grandparents’ house.

Anne Bancker Camac does take possession of the dollhouse after she married Dr. Henry Denton Nicoll and takes it to New York where she gave birth to three children: Margaret, Anne, and William Nicoll. The fourth Anne (1882-1974) married Gordon E. Wightman, but she didn’t have a daughter. Her sister Margaret (1878-1962), as the widow Dudley, marries their cousin John Cadwalader (1874-1934), grandson of Henrietta and the Judge. Margaret and John’s daughter Anne Nicoll Cadwalader (1911-1990) becomes the fifth Anne. The house comes back to Pennsylvania after her marriage to John H. W. Ingersoll in 1933. John had two sons by a first marriage, and they added two daughters to the family. The youngest was named Anne Nicoll Ingersoll. It remained at the Ingersoll’s home in Penllyn for many years, until the fifth Anne decided to place the dollhouse in the Powel House, sometime in the 1960s, after the sixth Anne’s daughter, Anne Nicoll Glendinning (the seventh Anne) was born.

And while the sixth Anne, born in the 1930s, absorbed the lessons of how life “should be lived” she did not pass those down. According to the seventh Anne, born in the 1960s, her mother’s story is like many women of that generation. She dutifully married a man from the “right” family and had his children, yet divorced early on. She went back to school and became an academic, raising her children while working. I reached out to the seventh Anne to inquire about her knowledge and memories of the dollhouse. She remembered her grandmother, Anne Ingersoll, as the last of a generation. One still concerned with upholding genteel society. Neither of the last two Annes on the list remembered playing with the dollhouse. In fact, it was only in recent years that they were reminded of its existence and made a pilgrimage together to the Powel House. Like me, neither was overly impressed. Yet, now I hope this dollhouse will take on new meaning. Through 200 years, and eight generations, the ideals of how life “should be” became reality. With hopes and dreams, realized and unmet, of mothers who died too young, spinsters, widows, divorcées, wives without children, aunts, cousins, sisters, and nieces. And now, as part of a museum collection, the dollhouse is no longer an ideal, but perhaps an expanded vision of what it is to be a woman.

About the author

Mickey Herr lived in many places until her heart settled in Philadelphia. She has led the development and communications efforts for several significant non-profit cultural institutions in Philadelphia. Current interests involve elevating the hidden-histories of women. She is at work on a novel, and gives tours for Hidden City Philadelphia, both of which are allowing her to research incredible untold stories of women. She believes in ghosts, synchronicity, and taking chances. Read her writing on Philadelphia, history and geneology at mickeyherr.com.



4 Comments


  1. There is a wonderful large dollhouse at the Chester Co. Historical Society in W. Chester, Pa. It is similar to the one pictured above.

    Hope you can visit and see all their wonderful exhibits.

    Carol L. Rice

  2. I loved your article! Thank you. What an exciting discovery you have made.
    I write to you with a copy of Minnie Jones’s “Lantern Slides” on my desk next to me. I am currently researching Minnie’s life. I would be grateful to learn your source for including Nikola Tesla, H.G. Wells and John Singer Sargent in the list of her salon-attendees. Thanks ever so much.

    • Thank you Margaret. I recommend checking out the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, they have a collection of Minnie’s letters. Are you writing a book about her? I’d love to hear more!

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