Page C1.1 . 15 May 2013   
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Designing the Creative Child

by Amy F. Ogata

At the same time that middle-class children gained space in the general living areas of the family house and their bedrooms were decorated to enhance self-esteem and creativity, they also acquired their own miniature dwellings.

A profusion of designs for indoor and backyard playhouses transformed a formerly elite amusement into a middle-class toy that parents could assemble or make themselves, reinforcing the image of the dwelling and its attendant ideal of "creative living" as an emblem of postwar family life.

Although children have probably always sought out spaces removed from adults, the wherewithal to present them with their own separate houses for play was once the exclusive pleasure of the rich.

Victorian Beginnings

In the nineteenth century, diminutive playhouses erected for children, such as Queen Victoria's 1854 Swiss Cottage, built for her children at Osborne House, and the Peabody and Stearns structure that Cornelius Vanderbilt II commissioned for his children, especially his daughters Gertrude and Gladys, in Newport, Rhode Island, were princely additions to large estates.

These examples, which had working kitchens, their own china and glassware, and seating for guests, taught practical skills — which these children would probably never need to use — as a form of play. Emulating the practices of the aristocracy, wealthy British children also enjoyed their own private domestic spaces, especially in the garden.

The Arts and Crafts garden designer Gertrude Jekyll recommended a separate, two-room playhouse with a working stove and surrounding gardens, claiming children would "look back on its lessons of play-work with thankfulness, both for joyful memories and for the abiding usefulness of all that it had taught them." In Jekyll's descriptions, the child's house and garden were physically removed from the adult sphere, but their practical lessons in the arts of domesticity were training for adulthood.

Just before and after World War I, wealthy Americans began building or buying playhouses for their children, but, unlike those with working appliances, these dwellings were uniquely for pretend. Under the banner heading "To Develop Creativeness," playhouses and educational toys were recommended to readers of Vogue magazine in 1915, and a prefabricated playhouse was available through House and Garden the following year. By the late 1930s, playhouses for middle-class children were described as educational amusements, especially for summer months.

Post-war Boom

It was after World War II, however, that the playhouse became thoroughly middle-class, and its construction or assembly a family hobby. In addition to Sunset, magazines such as American Home, Women's Home Companion, Ladies' Home Journal, Popular Science, and Parents' Magazine published plans and hints for do-it-yourself playhouses and championed the playhouse's potential for stimulating imagination.   >>>

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This article is excerpted from Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America by Amy F. Ogata, copyright © 2013, with permission of the publisher, University of Minnesota Press.

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The Creative Playthings cardboard playhouse was available starting circa 1970.
Photo: Courtesy University of Minnesota Press Extra Large Image

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This advertisement for the Doughboy brand of playhouses appeared in the August 1951 edition of Playthings magazine.
Photo: Courtesy New York Public Library Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations Extra Large Image


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