Wednesday, June 2, 2010

1890s Dunham's Cocoanut Dollhouse

(This post is especially for Norma, who requested more pictures of my dollhouses!)

When I first started collecting dollhouses and miniatures, one of the pieces I most longed for was the Dunham's Cocoanut Dollhouse, made in America in the 1890s. The odd name belies its origins: the house was originally a packing crate for Dunham's Cocoanut, a shredded confection used for baking, particularly as a cake topping. The 28 inch tall crate originally would have held several boxes of this shredded coconut product, and the house served as an advertising premium.

It's believed the crates arrived in stores already papered inside, ready to be converted into a dollhouse once they were emptied and stood on end. The lithographed floor and wall papers are awash with details, including rugs, tile, and loads of Victorian bric a brac like potted ferns, pianos, paintings, shelves, china cabinets, even a taxidermied moose head and an aquarium full of fish. And, lest we forget this house was essentially a marketing device, the cupboard lithographed on a kitchen wall is stocked full of tiny Dunham's Cocoanut boxes!

The outside of the crate has impressed bricks and windows on each side, and is stamped "Dunham's Cocoanut Dollhouse" on both ends. No one is really sure how the houses were distributed after the coconut was sold, and they are hard to find today. Considering their original purpose, most remaining examples are in rough shape now, with water staining, torn and missing paper, and a prominent crack down the back, caused by the joining of the two planks used to fashion the crate's bottom.  Even so, the house, with its fantastically detailed wallpapers, is a treasure, providing a peek into late Victorian domestic life.

It's also an outstanding example of a very early marketing premium. Besides the house itself, children could send away for individual cardboard pieces of furniture, each emblazoned with the Dunham's logo. You would have had to really like shredded coconut in order to acquire enough pieces to completely furnish the house! This furniture is now exceedingly rare: I've only ever seen one set, and it was in a museum. Consequently, lucky Dunham's house owners fit out their homes with whatever they can find that seems suitable. Mine features a mix of old pieces, including early 1900s German bedroom, dining, and parlor sets, and an American stove and icebox from the 1920s and '30s, along with some other odds and ends. The tour commences below.

The top floor of the house is a bedroom, complete with lace curtained windows. A 4 inch Limbach doll plays with her toys on the floor, next to her German bed with its original coverlet, and a matching wardrobe complete with clothes pegs and a mirrored door.

Down one floor we find the parlor, where a German dollhouse father relaxes on the sofa with his newspapers. The piano is on the wallpaper in the back left corner. The fruit compote dish in this corner is very old and also German made.

Next is the dining room, with the most wonderfully detailed wallpapers in the house: this is where we find the moose head and aquarium. The buffet, table, and chairs are from the same 1900s German set as the bed and wardrobe. I had a lot of fun laying out the breakfast foods and dishes and setting out the tea things on the buffet. The tiny tin trunk is actually a British candy container, which I've filled with extra dishes.

At the bottom of the house is the kitchen. The stove and icebox are American made, and I love the icebox, which came complete with its original glass "ice block". The copper tea kettle on the stove is Dutch. This is the room with the wallpaper cupboard holding the boxes of Dunham's Cocoanut.

I hope you've enjoyed this visit to my Dunham's Cocoanut Dollhouse!


  1. What a treasure!! - and such an incredible story! I can imagine little girls recruiting family and friends as 'coconut eaters' in order to get the furniture LOL And lots of other little girls trying to make their own from whatever they could get their hands on.

    It's absolutely charming, and the contents a truly wonderful collection. It's hard to choose but I think the trunk full of pewter tableware is my favourite.

    I've just woken up Tracy, straight to the computer to check what's been happening on blogs overnight and before my eyes are open there you are with such an awesome treat. Thanks!!

    I'd love to post a link to this on my blog, and use one of your photos to do that, is that ok?

  2. Hi Norma,

    I'm glad you enjoyed the Dunham's house! Absolutely, feel free to repost whatever you'd like. I considered myself really, really lucky to find one of these, and I'm just happy to be able to share it this way!


  3. man, I shouldn't even be looking at this, let alone posting, since I am at work, but is this special...thank you for posting the detail and history of this wonderful doll house.

  4. Thanks: I'm glad you liked it!

    Tracy :)

  5. Wonderful! I love the moose, the ham, the ice block. oh, I love all of it.

  6. I love your Dunham's Cocoanut Dollhouse. The furnitures, the accessoires and the dolls are really beautiful.
    Hugs and greetings from Bavaria, Germany

  7. Hi Marion, thanks for your kind comments. I've always wanted to visit Germany, source of so many of my best toys!

  8. Hi Tracy,
    I love the dollhouse, it's very special. It was a pleasure to watch the photo's and the story you have written about it. The dolls, furniture and accessoires are matching very good witj this beautifull dollhouse. Thanks for sharing.
    Greetings, Nancy

  9. Thanks Nancy, glad you enjoyed it!

  10. I loved to see your Dunham's Cocoanut Dollhouse.
    Thanks for sharing with us.

  11. Hello Tracy, Great blog and great post! I was wondering if you would mind sending me some dimensions of your coconut house. I am considering making one. Troy at

  12. I have one of these exact dollhouses retrieved from a friend's attic. It sits in my kitchen.

    1. Congratulations! That was a lucky find: these are difficult houses to come by. I've heard from a few other owners that they also keep theirs in the kitchen: it seems like a natural place for an item that was a food premium. Enjoy your house!

  13. I'm lucky enough to own this doll house. My grandfather had it stored under the eaves of the attic and used it to hold books. He died in 1960 and my father brought it home to carry the books he wanted. He was going to burn the doll house until I rescued it in 1989. Mine is in splendid shape due to being stored in a dry dark place for so many years. the colors are vivid and the papers are not torn. It does have the split in the back but it is very narrow.

    1. Oh my goodness: you rescued one of these from a trash burning! That's a wonderful story, and what a treasure you have. Thanks for sharing!