Small Talk

Josephine’s Mini Museum

JosephineMuseum

Today, some of our favorite souvenirs come in the form of photographs. Facebook or Instagram albums full of exotic photos illustrate the story of a trip to a far-off place. But, this wasn’t always the case. In the 19th century, photography was still new and handheld cameras weren’t yet synonymous with Hawaiian shirt-clad tourists. Instead, the fashionable things to bring home were artfully crafted souvenirs such as miniature mosaics, diminutive copies of landmarks, and pocket-sized paintings.

We can safely presume that when Josephine Bird was completing finishing school in Florence, Italy, she amassed quite the collection of these souvenirs, many of which found a place in her large dollhouse’s attic (where else do you keep your nicest things!?). Some of the highlights include a soapstone Leaning Tower of Pisa, a print of a Renaissance angel in the style of Fra Angelico with a micromosaic frame, and an alabaster sculpture of the three graces. It’s quite the mini art museum!

Masterminding Historical Interiors

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In the late 1930s, Eugene Kupjack read a magazine article about Narcissa Thorne’s miniature rooms. Kupjack, trained in art and set design, took pieces of Lucite and fashioned them into a chair, a dish, and tiny glasses. He mailed them off to Mrs. Thorne—and six weeks later, he got a phone call. Mrs. Thorne loved his work. Would he come create some pieces for her?

Kupjack’s work as the principle artisan on 37 of the 62 Thorne Rooms launched his career in miniature-making, and he is now considered to be a father of the art form. Kupjack created approximately 700 miniature rooms during his career. Over the decades, Kupjack worked with many different mediums, but became particularly interested in creating silver miniatures after famous historical pieces, including Martha Washington’s tea tray and Paul Revere’s tankard. Today, Kupjack’s sons are active miniature artisans, and his work continues to awe visitors at the Art Institute of Chicago and museums around the world. As one 1971 Thorne Rooms viewer mused, “To see them is to marvel at the magic of his fingers and the ingeniousness of his mind that created this tiny room.”

The War to End All Wars

Metal Soldier

One hundred years ago, the “war to end all wars” began. Now known as World War I (and not even close to the last world conflict), it would grow to involve 30 nations, 65 million soldiers, and 4 years of warfare. The war touched every aspect of life in the United States, including play.

Toy armies evolved from figures of men on horseback with bayonets to soldiers equipped with rifles and machine guns. In the 1930s, the United States-based Manoil Manufacturing Company began to produce metal toy soldiers. This painted soldier, known as a “tommy gunner,” holds modern weaponry and poses in a combat position. He is one of T/m’s many examples of toy soldiers that reflect the conflict in which they fought, even if it was just a battle of the imagination.

Preserving Historical Interiors

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T/m’s miniature collection was greatly influenced by three spectacular commissions in the 1970s. We’ve already examined Queen Mary’s Doll House and Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle, so now it’s time to examine the third: the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the 1920s, museums across the United States from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Detroit Institute of Arts were premiering full-scale period interiors. After traveling through Europe, Narcissa Thorne, daughter-in-law of the co-founder of Montgomery Ward and Company, dreamed of miniature rooms as a space-saving alternative to documenting, sharing, and preserving historical interiors.

Thorne began with 24 rooms that were exhibited to great acclaim between 1933 and 1940 at Chicago’s Century of Progress ExpositionSan Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition, and New York’s 1939-1940 World’s Fair. Over the years, she commissioned additional rooms for a total of 68 interiors spanning Europe from the late 13th century to the 1930s and America from the 17th century to the 1930s. They are now on view across the United States, including the Art Institute of Chicago. We’ll be looking at some of the rooms in depth over time, but for now, check out this then-and-now postcard collection.

Photo: Mrs. James Ward Thorne. California Living Room, 1850-1875, c. 1940 The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.

The Magic of Color and Finish… On The Walls?

Hastrich Chest and Faux Paint Samples

While we may have gotten a time out for coloring on the walls and furniture, James Hastrich pays homage to his early-American predecessors by doing just that with each of his miniature creations. He modeled his artist’s sample box after one owned by 19th century stenciling master Moses Eaton.

These traveling artists, known as itinerant painters, journeyed from town to town with their sample box, showcasing their skills to potential patrons. In return for food and lodging, these artists painted furniture (such as this chest in the style of Rufus Porter’s folk art landscapes), walls, and even floors with stenciled patterns inspired by wallpaper—which was too expensive for many families before the Industrial Revolution standardized mass production and reduced costs.

Today, some lucky New England homeowners are still discovering original stenciled patterns beneath layers of wallpaper. Maybe someday we’ll find hidden designs in one of our miniature room settings.

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