Victorian Dollhouse a Christmas Treasure

12/25/2010 2:00 PM
By Sue Bowman



Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

LEBANON, Pa. — Many little girls might long for a dollhouse, but back in 1898, it was a three-year-old boy who received a miniature house as his Christmas present. Little Henry Shenk would eventually have two younger sisters with whom to share this gift, but at the time it was given to him by his parents, it stood taller than he did — and this sizeable plaything would continue to grow as Henry did.

The Shenks were a prosperous Lebanon County, Pennsylvania family who operated Shenk’s Department Store at 816-822 Cumberland Street, Lebanon’s main street, from 1900-1923. Henry’s mother originally had a large-scale, six-room dollhouse constructed for her son by a carpenter, furnishing it with authentic-looking miniatures of household items from Philadelphia’s Schwarz Toy Store. Everything in the dollhouse from the miniature tables and chairs down to place settings show an impressive attention to detail.

Dollhouse accessories such as curtains, bedspreads and throw rugs, as well as the outfits worn by the dolls inside, were made by Mrs. Shenk. Worthy of special note are the oriental-style rugs, which were actually made from decorative cigarillo cigarette packs. At some point the house also received electric ceiling light fixtures, which still work today.

The dollhouse eventually expanded to include new wings on either end of the central structure, as well as a third story; these new additions increased its size to a total of 12 rooms. Several new pieces of furniture were added to the dollhouse each year for Christmas and birthdays, with the gold room being the last one completed in 1910.

Access to this special plaything was limited to Christmastime, when it would be placed in the Shenks’ parlor. Not surprisingly, it was Henry’s younger sisters, Beatrice and Christine, who took the greatest interest in playing with this Christmas treasure. They eventually donated the fully furnished dollhouse to the Lebanon County Historical Society, where it can be seen on display at the society’s 924 Cumberland Street headquarters in Lebanon, Pa.For hours of operation, call 717-272-473.

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