Christmas in miniature

12th Century French Hall from the Thorne Collection

I know I’m a nerd, but who can resist history and design wrapped up in the charm of a miniature space?

Last week I took the train into Chicago visit the Art Institute’s miniature Thorne Rooms, a number of them decorated for the holiday season.

I have always loved dollhouses! Miniature rooms with miniature furniture, people and details that you can arrange and rearrange at will, the more tiny details the better. Add to this the historical accuracy of the Thorne rooms, depicting the interiors of upper-class homes from England, the United States, and France from the late 13th to the first half of the 20th Century. It’s impossible to ignore the precision of the miniature spaces, but it’s equally important to recognize the bits of history each displays.

English Drawing Room, the Thorne Rooms

The Thorne Rooms have quite a history of their own. Narcissa Niblack Thorne (1882-1966) created her meticulously detailed rooms on a scale of one inch to one foot. She became interested in miniatures as a child and pursued that interest as an adult. This was not uncommon for middle- and upper-class women of her time. If you have visited Windsor Castle outside London, you probably saw Queen Mary’s dollhouse, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens between 1921 and 1924.

Mrs. Thorne’s work was first exhibited in 1932. Though most exhibitions were privately held for charity, her works were publicly shown at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933. Because she was a woman of means (her husband was James Thorne, an heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune) and because she began this work during the Great Depression, when it was possible for her to readily hire highly specialized artisans, her projects flourished. Her work was in considerable demand, including a commission for a miniature library depicting a room at Windsor Castle in honor of Edward VIII’s coronation. Although the coronation never occurred, Mrs. Thorne’s miniature room was displayed at the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

More than 60 of the Thorne Rooms are now the property of Chicago’s Art Institute.
One of the charms of seeing the rooms that are decorated for Christmas is seeing how the holiday is depicted in each scene. The inspiration for this Victorian Christmas scene was a widely distributed image representing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert with an early Christmas tree, a tradition the prince brought to England from his native Germany.


And I love this version of an 18th Century Virginia foyer with the kissing ball hanging from the chandelier and the greenery lining the stairs.



And then there is this one of a ladies’ dressing room in antebellum Louisiana, with tiny gowns ready and waiting for a holiday gala.


Although I am particularly drawn to the 17th and 18th Century rooms, there are a few that are quite modern, duplicating interiors from the 1930’s and 40’s. If you are interested in deign or architecture, these rooms are a lesson in both. I’m not sure if the time period matters as you work thru the glass-enclosed rooms that are arranged somewhat chronologically. I think it’s the execution of these miniature marvels that’s so enticing!

This was a fun escape, but now I’m back to decking halls, shopping, and wrapping. I’ll be back, soon because I’m unpacking the traveling wine glasses!

See you next time!


3 thoughts on “Christmas in miniature

  1. Hello, Janet, thank you for directing me here. I haven’t looked at every room yet as one really doesn’t need to in order to grasp just how good they are. I, admitted Japanophile, was completely smitten by the Japanese interior. And also loved the Shaker room. Again, thank you for introducing me to this treasure.


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