Susan’s Betsy McCall Dollhouse — a treasured toy for three generations

vintage dollhouseWhen reader Susan discovered our series — Kate builds a 1955 Betsy McCall DIY Dollhouse — a rush of happy memories started flooding back. Susan still has her own Betsy McCall Dollhouse, which she received for her fifth birthday in 1958. Since then, the dollhouse has been remodeled twice — once for her daughter in 1983 and again more recently as a Christmas surprise for her two granddaughters in the early 2000s. Yes — this dollhouse has become a family heirloom — delighting three generations — so far

First generation — 1957: Built and decorated for Susan’s fifth birthday

vintage dollhouseSusan writes:

In 1957, my family lived in Chico, California. I’m the youngest of six kids. My mother, Priscilla, had already ordered the dollhouse plans from McCall’s. She showed them to a friend who was a contractor. I don’t remember his name, but I was told he ended up making two doll houses: one for me and one for his own daughter. My father, Wilfred, made all the wood furniture for it; most of which still exists today. My mother did all the decorating. Sadly, this is the only photo I have of the dollhouse from my childhood. The front of the dollhouse was stained to look like redwood. I so wish I had a photo of it.

Susan and her mother Priscilla — who started this family dollhouse tradition. Christmas 1957.

For years, I wasn’t sure when I was given the dollhouse. Was it Christmas? A birthday? Surprisingly, I have no memory of that day and there aren’t any photos. Recently, I was looking through my childhood scrapbook and found a magazine picture of the dollhouse glued in among my fifth birthday cards. So, I was given the dollhouse at my fifth birthday party on Jan. 15, 1958.

I do remember being very protective of the dollhouse. When friends wanted to play with it, I was constantly putting things “back where they belong.” I wish my current home was that neat and tidy. My daughter was exactly the same way. My granddaughters, sisters Natalie and Madison, didn’t fuss as much. I think they had more fun playing with it than I did.

Second Generation — 1983: Grandma and Uncle Peter remodel the dollhouse for Susan’s daughter Tiffany

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Here is my daughter Tiffany at her seventh birthday party in 1983. I don’t know why we didn’t take a picture of her IN FRONT of the dollhouse.

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I knew my mother was redoing the dollhouse for Tiffany, but I didn’t know about the decor until Tiffany’s birthday, so the interior was a surprise for me. For this 1983 renovation, she chose the colors — blue & white living room, pink bedrooms, blue bathroom — and a Victorian theme because that’s what I liked in my teens.

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The drawer had been seriously damaged during a move. My mother no longer had the plans to facilitate a replacement drawer. My oldest brother, Peter, turned the drawer space into a divided laundry room/storage room.

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Peter also repaired the roof, put new linoleum flooring in the kitchen/dining room area, and painted the dollhouse.

vintage betsy mccall dollhouse

My mom made some new furniture, bedding and curtains… and used some of the older items.

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The wood beds, dressers and kitchen suite were built by my dad. My mom made the mattresses for the beds. Yes, mattresses! She also braided the rugs and made the little pink floral chair from a juice can.

The lamp originally had a design on the shade that’s peeled off over the years.

vintage betsy mccall dollhouse

The little boy is from the original set of people. I had the entire family. I think the father is still around but I couldn’t find him today.

vintage betsy mccall dollhouse

My mother made the white satin furniture and coffee table for the first renovation. I thought they were pretty special. I’m amazed they’re still so white after 32 years.

vintage betsy mccall dollhouse

The baby picture was my mother’s idea. Whenever I’d have my children’s pictures taken, I’d give my mom the charms that came with the photo package. She used Velcro to “hang” them on the wall in the dollhouse. My daughter and my granddaughters loved having “their” portraits hanging on the walls.

vintage betsy mccall dollhouse

The phone has a little story to it. I still had the original when I gave the dollhouse to my granddaughters. Unfortunately, it got stepped on that Christmas morning. For several years, I searched for another one on eBay, with no luck. I was looking at Barbie collections on eBay. My daughter was sitting next to me when I clicked on the Barbie listing… and there was the phone in the second photo! Both our mouths dropped open. What are the odds of that happening?!!

dollhouse furniture

My mom made the coffee table from a tile. It’s always been one of my favorite pieces. And, finally, the siamese kitten was a gift from my grandfather who lived in Maine. He came to visit our family in 1960 and saw the dollhouse. When he got home, he mailed me the kitten to set in the dollhouse.

Third Generation — 2002: Susan and her husband renovate the house for granddaughters Natalie and Madison

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When my husband, Doyle, and I renovated the dollhouse for our granddaughters (who are now 16 and 19), I followed my mother’s lead and decorated the living room in Tiffany’s favorite color, purple.

vintage betsy mccall dollhouse vintage betsy mccall dollhouse vintage betsy mccall dollhouse

I’m not as clever as my mother was, so I didn’t make major changes. I put in new carpeting and wallpaper. My husband took care of another roof repair and repainted the dollhouse.

By this time, the carport had been stepped on. We removed it and made a patio.

vintage betsy mccall dollhouse
Dollhouse during renovations.

We gave the dollhouse to Natalie and Madison for Christmas 2002. In the “before” picture, notice the black sheet on the top. We had to hide it every time the girls came to visit. We’d cover it with the sheet and pile empty boxes in front of it. A few things I’d forgotten about: My husband loves Thomas Kinkade paintings so I framed some paintings I’d cut off fliers from a Kinkade studio.

vintage betsy mccall dollhouse

The tulip wallpaper and curtain tie-backs in the kitchen were because Tiffany loves tulips. And, of course, a Tiffany lamp had to go in the house! Notice the coffee cups in the kitchen with Natalie and Madison printed on them. I believe I bought them at a dollhouse store in Sacramento. The Jell-O box is from the original dollhouse. The Tupperware bowl was from the early 60’s.

And the next generation — coming right along!

vintage betsy mccall dollhouse
One of Susan’s great-grand-nieces enjoying the Betsy McCall Dollhouse.

The dollhouse now has made its way back to my house, where it sits in the guest room. I have many grand-nieces who love to play with it.

I have purchased plans for the dollhouse. When the time comes to renovate the dollhouse for the next generation, I hope to replace the drawer and carports, as well as the window frames that disappeared along the way. It will be up to Tiffany to decide the colors and theme for her granddaughter. Since Tiffany loves MCM and turquoise, I predict the dollhouse will return to its original look. I’m not sure what we’ll do if she only has grandsons!

Thank you for allowing me to take this trip down memory lane.

Susan, I absolutely love how your brother remedied the missing drawer by making a basement and laundry room — so cute. I have throughout about making a bomb shelter/basement in the space where my drawer goes, so the drawer could be removed for play but then put back for storage. Now I think I need to put laundry in there, too! Another favorite — how the vintage Jello box is still in use in the kitchen — such a fun detail.

Thanks so much for sharing the life of your Betsy McCall Dollhouse with us! It is awesome that you are working on preparing the dollhouse for its fourth generation of use. This is proof that toys handmade with love often become long-lasting family favorites.

See all our dollhouse stories:

Categoriespostwar culture
  1. Mr Kim says:

    «I’m not sure what we’ll do if she only has grandsons!». Hey, why shouldn’t boys be allowed to play with a doll house if they wish so? This is the 21st century. I plaid a lot with my cousin’s house and it was a great training for the time when I had to actually decorate my flat.

    1. Susan says:

      You’re absolutely right, Mr. Kim! It would be fun to decorate the dollhouse for a boy. I can already picture the Roy Rodgers bedroom!

      1. Mary Elizabeth says:

        My niece and nephew, now in their forties, are twins. They got minimalist dollhouses one Christmas when they were about four. One was a traditional house with a family and the other was a firehouse. In the firehouse, the downstairs rooms were bays for the fire trucks. The upstairs rooms were a kitchen/lounge where the firefighters hung out, making chilli and watching TV and whatever they do when there isn’t a fire, and a bunk room where they slept. The firehouse bell was, I think, a bicycle bell mounted on the side of the firehouse. The furniture was block style made out of scraps of lumber. I remember that sometimes they switched houses, my niece playing with the firehouse and my nephew playing with the family house.

        My 3-year-old grandson loves to visit farms and cows, so for Christmas last year I gave him a barn where he keeps his tractors, animals. etc. He opened the large bag, delighted, examined every detail, then turned to me and asked, “Where the farmers?” So for his birthday he got a farmer and another tractor. This is reminding me that I have a Creative Playthings dollhouse in my attic that I should bring out for him and my 6-year-old grandson to play with when they visit. They can put a family and furniture in it, a bunch of zoo animals, fire engines, a museum, or whatever their imagination dictates.

    2. Anna says:

      Very true. My little brother played with my first dollhouse so much he pretty much wrecked it!

      I got a different dollhouse later on…every kid that visited our house, boy or girl, always wanted to play with it.

      Now that I’m an adult, I have realistic, “grown-up” dollhouses – and everyone who sees them – young or old, male or female – is enchanted.

  2. linda h says:

    I was going to say after the previous dollhouse post that the one I really wanted if I ever got a dollhouse was the one with the bomb shelter .

  3. Steve H says:

    What a cool story. Hey Kate – this must have been pretty interesting for you. Kind of like going inside the house down the street that’s identical to your own and seeing how the neighbors decorated.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Thanks so much, Susan, for sharing this story, and thanks to Retrorenovation for publishing it. I had a friend who had a colonial dollhouse, and even when we were “too old to play with a dollhouse,” we played with it. I grew up with a much simpler dollhouse (just wood, no paint/paper/wallcovering), and my children (both boys and girls) had the same style, but for my grandchildren, I am thinking of decorating, mindful of the delight I had in the details of my friend’s dollhouse.

    1. Susan says:

      Jennifer, you should absolutely do it! I had so much fun renovating the dollhouse. Kate’s dollhouse has inspired me to start looking for things to add to the next renovation.

  5. Donn Reese says:

    I’m not sure how appropriate this is per blog rules but it’s so fitting considering today’s blog posting on a doll house. This morning while searching for something else on our local craigslist I ran across this ad: http://anchorage.craigslist.org/clt/5058890128.html
    A 1960s “suitcase dollhouse” with lots of accessories. It’s not something I’m interested in owning but it’s very cool, perhaps a fellow Anchorage, AK reader of your blog is interested. Or, indeed anyone outside our area.
    I love the amoebe mirror on the dresser/vanity and the multiple vintage televisions.

  6. Cynthia says:

    Such a charming story! I’m touched that the original little owner’s parents took the time to “commission” the original structure and to create the furniture and decorations…and she and the next generations followed in their loving footsteps! These handmade toys are personalized, cherished and played with for nearly 60 years and probably will be for many more – whereas the store bought plastic toys of each era, if they still exist, will no longer capture young imaginations.
    Interesting that none of the furniture or decorations were or are mid century modern!

  7. tammyCA says:

    Neat story. 🙂 Growing up my sisters & I never had a dollhouse & I always wanted one..when I grew up I finally bought one myself. You’re never too old. I get a kick out of creating & finding affordable things for them..hopefully, in a few months I can share some pics, too.

  8. Mary Elizabeth says:

    I forgot to thank Susan for sharing her story. And I wonder if she has ever read the book _Big Susan_ about a little girl and her magical dollhouse.

  9. Sarah J says:

    I so loved this story! I have a secret passion for vintage dollhouses. In fact I’ve been carrying around a picture of a sleek mid-century tin lithographed ranch style I found at The Mall in St Paul.

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