Don’t sweat the small stuff, discover it at the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts at 427 N. New St. Hidden away in the second floor vault are rows of movable shelving housing the Elizabeth Johnston Prime Dollhouse and Toy Collection. With 44 structures and 6,000 pieces, this is one of the largest antique dollhouse collections in the United States. Most of the collection was either handmade or manufactured from 1830-1930, representing 100 years of architectural and decorative arts history.
The public will be able to enjoy an opportunity to take a Sunday afternoon guided tour of the tiny ‘neighborhoods’ in the environmentally-controlled Collections Resource Center on June 16, Aug. 18, and Oct. 20 from 1 - 2 pm. Tickets are $25 per person to see these hidden treasures.
Keith Sten led an April 14 tour. With gloved hands, he walked an enthusiastic group through rows of exquisitely-detailed dollhouses, untying or unlatching some to reveal their interiors. Many of these are packed full with intricate furnishings such as tables, chairs, beds, chandeliers, framed paintings and mirrors, and even a commode or two. One sported a furry bearskin rug in the parlor.
Sten said Elizabeth Johnston Prime spent a lifetime adding to her vast collection and that she only put pieces in each house that were period-appropriate, including the china. Her grandfather was Archibald Johnston, the first mayor of Bethlehem after the north and south municipalities consolidated in 1917. After marrying Sylvester Prime, the couple settled in New York City where she enjoyed entertaining friends with visits to her collection. Childless herself, Prime only purchased pieces that had been played with and “loved” by children. She later donated her collection to the Kemerer Museum before passing away in 2006.
The oldest dollhouse in the collection is from circa 1830. It had been constructed inside a mahogany cabinet. Although there are windows on the cabinet sides, a pair of solid doors in front concealed the four-room miniature world inside when it wasn’t in use. According to the collector’s note, Sten explained, it is a “Rare Empire American Dollhouse” built by a carpenter for the Towell family from Warren County, Pennsylvania. The furniture and accessories are believed to be original. The piece may have floated down the Allegheny River on a raft in 1870 to Rochester, Pennsylvania, by a family who had purchased it second-hand.
Four generations of one family, including 4-year-old Grace Ganser and her mom Kolleen Ganser from Allentown, maternal grandmother Kathy Pecuch from Bethlehem, and maternal great-grandmother Dorothy Seeds from Saucon Valley, toured the collection.
Jeanette Turnbull, a Philadelphia resident visiting her friend in Bethlehem came along for inspiration. Having built and furnished dollhouses for herself and others, including the Woodmere Art Museum, she snapped digital images with her phone of the different model interiors for reference.
Sten called attention to a German-made residential over retail structure manufactured by Johannes Daniel Kestner circa 1860s. There are small drawers for herbs stacked up behind the sales counter of the “Spezerei Laden,” German for “Spice Shop.” The living areas are
furnished with period furniture and other historic features, except for the blond inhabitant on the third floor. Named “Betsy J.,” she is a playful tribute to the late collector. The “Betsy J.” doll, paired with an “Annie K.” doll (named for Annie S. Kemerer), are available for purchase as a souvenir set.
Several dollhouses made by well-known manufacturers Christian Hacker and Moritz Gottschalk form part of the collection.
Museum hours: 12 p.m. - 4 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. Sunday (Sundays are free Jan. 13 through the end of October for museum admission only), Monday - Thursday by appointment. Call: 1-800-360-TOUR. Information: historicbethlehem.org