Have you heard about the elegant dessert party in the Stockade?
Dozens of ladies, adorned in their finest frocks, have gathered in a historic home decorated with Christmas trees and laden with a delectable array of sweet treats.
During the holiday season and into the dark winter, the Schenectady County Historical Society is inviting everyone to bring their imaginations to “Dolls and Desserts,” an exhibit of its antique and vintage dolls presented with more than 100 miniature cakes, pies, fruits and Victorian goodies made from polymer clay.
“It’s like a fantasy world. We hoped it would appeal to people of all ages,” says Deborah Crosby, a SCHS trustee and the artist who created the diminutive desserts.
‘Dolls and Desserts’
WHERE: Schenectady County Historical Society, 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: Through mid-February. The sixth annual Festival of Trees runs through Sunday, Dec. 9. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Tours are available.
HOW MUCH: $5 for adults, $2 for children 6 to 12, free for younger kids
MORE INFO: 374-0263, www.schist.org
Pageant of toys and sweets
The historical society has about 100 dolls from the 1830s to the 1940s. With the exception of a few that were in poor condition, they are all in the exhibit in the museum section of the historical society building.
“The majority of our doll collection has not been displayed in a long time. And it’s the first time it’s ever been shown all together,” says curator Ryan Mahoney.
It’s also an opportunity to revisit one of the society’s most beloved objects, the Yates Dollhouse. In 1834, Gov. Joseph Yates asked a Schenectady cabinetmaker to build the dollhouse when his granddaughter came to live with him at 17 Front St. in Schenectady’s Stockade District.
“Dolls and Desserts” is a pageant of old-fashioned toys and Victorian-era sweets that begins in a hallway on the first floor and continues in two rooms and two hallways on the second floor.
There are many faces and many dresses, and each is different from the next.
Dolls are made of ceramic, cloth, china, bisque, papier-mâché and parian, a type of porcelain. Some complexions are cracked with age, some have faces drawn in ink by an unknown hand.
There are African-Americans and Asians, blondes and brunettes. Dolls with glass eyes, dolls with painted eyes. Human hair and mohair tops their little heads.
“It’s a good representation,” and serious doll collectors know about this collection, says Mahoney. “I don’t think the general public knows.”
On a recent tour, CRosby stops to point out a delicate damsel dressed in a bonnet and long gown.
“I believe this is our only French doll. She’s exquisite,” she says.
But this party is not entirely a ladies’ affair.
A nearly life-sized baby boy doll, made in the 1940s by Effanbee, wears sky-blue corduroy overalls and is posed jauntily on a toy bed topped with a blue ticking coverlet. There’s also a cloth Uncle Sam doll, and a man doll with a white lacey cravat.
Look good enough to eat
The miniature desserts rest in the dolls’ laps, on doll-sized furniture or are grouped at their feet. Each dessert measures about 1 inch, in keeping with the standard 1 to 12 inch scale for dollhouse food items.
“I’ve been working in polymer clay for a long time. You won’t see them exactly like this anywhere else,” says Crosby.
Since August, Crosby has been sculpting and baking the clay pieces in her Rotterdam home.
The retired art teacher researched old recipes and studied gelatin and baking molds in the society’s collection.
“The desserts are similar to the era. I looked at the full-size molds to get ideas for their shapes,” she says.
Victorians were fond of molded gelatins or “jellies,” and blancmange, a pudding of milk, sugar and fruit that was set with gelatin, cornstarch or Irish moss, a thickener made from seaweed.
While the dome-shaped desserts may be unfamiliar to visitors, some of her “fruit pies,” with lattice crusts that ooze juicy-looking fillings, look good enough to eat.
Goblets and pudding cups were ordered from miniatures.com, and for plates she used antique butter pats, small china discs once used for individual dabs of butter.
“The pie tins are beer bottle caps,” Crosby says.
Classic dollhouse on view
You won’t see any mini desserts in the Yates dollhouse, but for the first time in decades, the faux marble and brick front of the dollhouse is on view next to the house.
Four feet high and 6 feet long, the two-story Federalist style house is one of the earliest documented dollhouses in New York state.
Inside, the mahogany furniture depicts the Second Empire style that was popular in the early 19th century. There’s a piano with a matching stool, a sideboard with gilded paw feet and a drop leaf dining table and chairs.
The dollhouse was donated in 1960, and since the early 1980s, when it was restored, has been on display on the second floor.
“It did survive with so much original furniture. The family that owned it never allowed playing with it,” says Mahoney.
The historical society would like its doll collection to become as well known as the Yates dollhouse. While preparing the exhibit, the dolls received special attention.
Each doll was photographed, and volunteers cleaned their faces with Q-tips.
Ann VanDervort, a local antique-doll expert, has been helping to identify them, and information about each doll will be digitally cataloged.
The society hopes to restore all of its dolls and eventually publish a book about the collection.
“The more information we gain on the history of an object, the better job we can do of protecting it,” says Mahoney. “It’s really amazing that these dolls survive.”