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By Rachel Barber

Rachel is a student of Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her interest in museums has led to Rachel volunteering at the V&A Museum of Childhood, and to a placement at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Her research interests include women’s history, contemporary feminism, and the cultural history of food and cooking.

Dutch cabinet kitchen, 1670-1700, Netherlands
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This Dutch Cabinet Kitchen is one of the last surviving dolls’ cabinets from the 17th century. It reveals the fashion and curiosity for creating miniature objects that started in Germany during the mid-16th century, spreading throughout the Low Countries and abroad, aided by emerging trade links1. The Cabinet is particularly unusual because it represents only one room – the kitchen. It thus offers an original dimension for studying the role of play and gender in the seventeenth century and the tools for displaying domestic life and society, in which marriage was central.

The oak Cabinet is itself curious, containing a collection of 215 miniature utensils (including some later additions that postdate the 17th century, not all currently on display)2. When the doors are closed, the object appears to be just an ordinary standing linen cabinet commonly found in most middle-class households of the seventeenth century, since it was traditional for brides to present their husbands with linen as a marriage gift3. Inside, however, there is an array of miniature utensils that hang and stack in orderly fashion, in and on the various cupboards and shelves. Typically of Dutch cabinet dolls’ houses, the contents could be arranged and then revealed by opening the cabinet doors, which creates anticipation and participation for the beholder, whilst also concealing abundance4.

This fully equipped kitchen displays a wealth of everyday earthenware containers, copper pans and pewter plates, interspersed with more intricate jelly moulds and wicker baskets. The decor is elaborate compared with other dolls’ house kitchens, with the wall behind the oven depicting a hand-painted smoking fire alongside blue and white tiles. The back wall of the cabinet is painted black, which emphasises the shapes and sizes of the many utensils displayed there. The side-walls are painted with baroque floral grotesques and the floor resembles black and white tiles. It is a finely crafted cabinet and the utensils on display present an unusual sense of order for an early modern room.

Dutch kitchen cabinet, 1670-1700, Netherlands, copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

Dutch kitchen cabinet, 1670-1700, Netherlands
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unlike today, where dolls’ houses are commonly associated with children, 17th century Dutch and German dolls’ houses or cabinets were normally intended for adult women. They were objects that represented the roles, wealth, privilege and status of their female collectors, who could thus demonstrate their impeccable taste5. It is important to remember that dolls’ houses usually originated among the wives of regents and rich merchants, an exclusive socioeconomic group with annual incomes in excess of 1000 guilders, who represented 6-8% of the urban population6. Consequently the Cabinet does not represent the kitchen of a certain time, but rather one type of kitchen among many, probably belonging to a wealthy merchant’s wife. Material goods are present in superabundance, reflecting the prosperity of the Dutch merchant class and indicating success of the home. Dutch Golden Age culture was seen as dependent on the successful propagation of the home and family, an ideology which was articulated through objects like the Cabinet7.

Dolls’ house of Petronella Oortman, Anonymous, c.1686-c.1710

Dolls’ house of Petronella Oortman, Anonymous, c.1686-c.1710

The Cabinet is unique because unlike other rare cabinet houses, it represents only one room. In Michelle Moseley-Christian’s study of pronk-poppenhuisen (or ostentatious dolls’ houses)8 she argues that the three houses discussed (complete replica homes that belonged to three wealthy Dutch burgher women during the 17th century), appear to ‘have functioned in part to reinforce and encourage the recipient’s identity as wife and mother’9. This is supported strongly by her reference to the fact that most the dolls’ houses were commissioned in anticipation of, or in tandem with, the marriage of these women10. For example, Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house was commissioned in 1686, which was the year of her marriage to merchant Johannes Brandt. This is further detailed in the visual combinations of their initials ‘BO’ (Brandt-Oortman) that are displayed throughout the house, on the furniture and exterior11.

Nuremberg House, 1673, Germany, copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

Nuremberg House, Germany, 1673
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Consequently, it is possible that perhaps the Cabinet was also commissioned to commemorate a marriage. As is still common practice today, in 17th century Dutch society it was usual for wedding guests to bring gifts for the bride and groom including poems and, most significantly, household items12. In Irma Thoen’s work on gift exchange in 17th century Holland, she dedicated a whole sub-chapter to ‘Cooking pots as wedding gifts’, where the ritual is discussed. Kitchen utensils and cooking pots are described as being ‘one type of object that, in every sense of the word, is appropriate for this occasion’13. However, the point is made that since the utensils were so ordinary and found in every 17th-century household, they rarely left a trace in history. This makes the Cabinet useful for understanding the types of kitchen utensils found in middle class homes during the 17th century. Noticeably, unlike the Nuremberg House kitchen, the Cabinet has no table or preparation area, so the utensils could be purely for display. Thoen highlights the exchange of earthenware pots and suggests they had two purposes within Dutch society. Firstly, as they were constructed from economical materials sufficient for basic day-to-day life, they indicated the everyday commitment and potential fragility of marriage. Secondly, she highlights a more important and widely considered point in the period, which is that the shape of earthenware pots drew parallels with and symbolised the human body14.

Domesticity and the idea of marriage were cornerstones of society during the early-modern period, consistently alluded to in popular conduct manuals and emblem books15. The most prolific and widely read writer on marriage and the family was Jacob Cats (1577-1660), a poet who moved in high social circles in Middelburg and The Hague16. It is in Cats’s hugely fashionable book Houwelick, or Marriage (first published in 1625, and then republished frequently after his death), that the poet’s key ideas about this institution are displayed. These incredibly popular poems, which were written in vernacular language and had sold an estimated 50,000 copies by the mid-17th century, detailed Cats’s thoughts on gender roles of women within society and suggest the model for the perfect wife17.

Cats described the curvaceous earthenware pots as being not just depictions of any human body, but the female body, and even referred to women as the ‘weaker vessel’, while emphasising that this did not necessarily mean women deserved to be treated with less honour18. Consequently, masculinity could be symbolised by other stronger materials like pewter (which accounts for a large percentage of the objects within the Cabinet). Cats’s book was divided into six chapters, each devoted to a single stage in a woman’s life, with marriage dominating her lifespan19. In the 17th-century Netherlands, women married relatively late (in their mid-20s) and the business of marriage was normally approached with what, from a modern perspective, appears to be a more progressive and liberal attitude, as partnerships were often choices made by each individual partner themselves, unlike in other European countries where arranged marriages were normal. Marjorie E. Wieseman has rightly highlighted that manuals and poems like Cats’s promoted ‘the era’s (unattainable) ideal of female behaviour’, which was written and constructed by men. Therefore the function of marriage as declared in Houwelick, as protecting female desires, meant that marriage acted as a mechanism of control, as well as conveniently satisfying male desires in the process20.

Gender is particularly important when analysing the Cabinet because, like the utensils contained within it, the kitchen was, and often still is, considered a female space. Popular moralists like Cats viewed the kitchen as a place ruled by women, who functioned as defenders of the honour of the family; it was also an extremely important room because it was the focus of domestic activity, as meals are a fundamental element in life.

Jacob Cats illustration

Jacob Cats illustration

There is a significant detail from an engraved illustration by Jan Pietersz van de Venne for the 1625 edition of Houwelick, to accompany one of the opening poems called ‘Kinder-spel’ or child’s play which promotes these gender connotations. The engraving shows a crowd of children playing an assortment of games. In the lower left corner of the print, some girls play with dolls and small toy replicas of household kitchen utensils, promoting the idea that the female’s place is in the home and teaching girls to aspire to this from infancy. It is also significant that the play of boys is represented as rather central, whereas the girls playing with utensils are marginalised and seated. These gender based aptitudes and inclinations surrounding the kitchen are first revealed in childhood, as the accompanying text illustrates; ‘The little girl plays with small objects, That are useful in the kitchen’21.

There was also a real division between public and private gender realms in Dutch 17th century society, but marriage was a meeting point of both. For example, the male was expected to take control of the public aspects of family life, including religion and good governance of household matters, but he also acted as provider for the home by working in the public sphere. By contrast, the woman’s tasks were mainly conducted inside the home where she would be responsible for household cleanliness, raising children and preparing food22. Consequently, the kitchen is very much considered to be within the female domain and ‘the cooking utensils and abundant comestibles are an advertisement to the housewife’s important duty to prepare food for her family’ as cooking was, and still is to many, a fundamental domestic skill23. As Elizabeth Honig explains, ‘Holland was the first bourgeois capitalist society, and thus the first in which this new map of the public and private came to be drawn’24. These boundaries for public and private domesticity were new – indeed, still emerging rather than fully formed in the 17th century – and as such contentious and troublesome, still fluid rather than fixed. Women had new liberties and opportunities prompted by the expanding Dutch economy and male absence abroad. Wealthy women were able to commission dolls’ houses and acquire art for their homes, but it should also be regarded that the visual culture itself very much helped shape divisions between inside and outside worlds25.

The Cabinet and other dolls’ houses demonstrate the role of women in the house with the use of a tactile form of play – engagement with an object that was not merely visual, like paintings (although painting is also usually a miniaturising medium). Touch is emphasised in the Cabinet because it is a single room, the beholder is forced to view from only one perspective and must therefore participate in production and not go on to explore further rooms. The prominence of touch must be understood in relation to Aristotle’s writings on the hierarchy of the senses in his De Anima (c. 350BC) in which touch is denigrated below sight and hearing. This might suggest the inferiority of ‘female’ dolls’ houses26. However, instead of viewing the unusual interplay of the senses as negative, it could be seen as a celebration of the unique three-dimensional quality of the Cabinet. A new potential is released through touch in the form of arrangement and accomplishing order, since the miniature objects, that accurately reproduce textures, can be moved and additions made. The beholder can even experience plate temperatures, mirroring the real and engaging experience of learning to cook and store utensils.

Dolls’ houses and cabinets exemplify gender divisions as they are objects of controlled play that require governance from their female owners. The dolls’ houses reinforce the widely held perceptions of gendered architectural space and domestic responsibility that were actualised in the owner’s experience of ritual play27. Allowing women, through the acts of arrangement and display, to operate the dolls’ house like a ruler and owner, the females are therefore supposedly in complete control of the virtual home28. In this way, the house can perhaps be described as a microcosm of state, which is also governed. This idea links with the 20th century scholar Michel Foucault who, in his work History of Sexuality, critiqued linkages between personal regulation and external power structures, namely the hegemony of the state. Foucault never discussed the preparation of food, but he argued that the state has a direct interest in controlling a population’s repressed desires or sexual urges and these power structures are employed by the state through important mechanisms like marriage29. In later more ethical works, Foucault ‘challenged the identification of power with repression by stressing its productivity’30. Therefore, even though Holland had been through radical transformations in the 17th century resulting in the formation of a Dutch Republic, the subsequent rise in material productivity created the ideal conditions for the construction of objects like the Cabinet, highlighting the role of consumption within the home and society. Financial backing from the husbands and fathers of the Republic, many of whom had become richer from expanding trade links, meant that their wives were able to indulge in conspicuous consumption, making inexpensive ‘toys’ fashionable31. The role consumption plays in society perhaps conveys why it was the kitchen (the major area of production and dissipation) that was chosen to be the room depicted in the Cabinet. It could have been to commemorate a marriage and for the posterity of household gifts received from wedding guests, or perhaps it could even be considered as a one off practicing toy for a cook to play with32. However, it is an object that can always be linked with domestic life and the home.

It is curious, as Bee Wilson emphasises, that ‘however radical we may consider ourselves to be in our everyday beliefs, when we step into a kitchen, most of us become conservatives’, we continue to cook in similar ways, resistant to change33. Despite incredible developments in kitchen technology since the 17th century, the majority of society still utilises similar pans and plates as those seen in the Cabinet. Although Wayne Frantis states that ‘any attempt to define 17th century attitudes towards women and domesticity that are mirrored in contemporary art is hazardous’34, it is the subtle parallels between different eras that prompts the study of visual culture and history. It is true that women today, through films, music and even cookery books, still continue to be educated to conform with gendered roles in marriage. The Nigerian novelist Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, featured in Beyonce’s recent song Flawless highlights this issue. The lyrics (taken from Adichie’s TEDX talk) state: ‘Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage… But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?’35 Despite Beyonce conversely suggesting in another song ‘if you like it, then you should have put a ring on it’, her use of Adichie’s talk positively promotes the fact that everybody should at least be actively aware of gendered roles. Women in the 17th century were beginning to slowly break the boundaries of their homes by taking on more public roles, like commissioning artworks. However the principle responsibilities as a wife remain the same and the kitchen as a domestic space was, and is, the ultimate didactic utensil for marriage within the home.


1 Olivia Bristol and Leslie Goddes-Brown, Dolls’ Houses: Domestic Life & Architectural Styles in Miniature Form from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Day, (Mitchell Beazley,1997), p. 8
2 Victoria & Albert Museum File (Museum of Childhood, MISC.26-1978): Kinkelin, The Misses Anne and Florence
The Museum of Childhood was previously called the Bethnal Green Museum.
3 Irma Thoen, Strategic Affection?: Gift Exchange in Seventeenth Century Holland, (Amsterdam University Press, 2007), p. 115
4 Michelle Moseley-Christian, ‘Seventeenth-century pronk poppenhuisen: domestic space and the ritual function of Dutch dollhouses for women’, (Home cultures 7:3, 2010), p. 356
5 Ibid, p. 344
6 John Loughton and John Michael Montais, Public and Private Spaces: Works of Art in Seventeenth Century Dutch Houses, (Waanders Publishers, Swolle, 1999), p. 21
7 Moseley-Christian, ‘Seventeenth-century pronk poppenhuisen’, p. 351
8 Ibid, p. 347
9Ibid, p.347
10 Ibidp. 347
11 Jet Pijzel-Dommisse, 17th Century Dolls’ Houses of the Rijksmuseum, (V+K Publishing/Inmerc B.V. 1994), p. 8
12 Thoen, Strategic Affection?, p. 107
13 Ibid, p. 110
14 Ibid, p. 113
15 Ibid, p. 98
16 Mariet Westermann, A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718, (Yale University Press), p. 119
17 Moseley-Christian, ‘Seventeenth-century pronk poppenhuisen’, p. 351
18 Thoen, Strategic Affection?, p. 114
19 Wayne E. Franits, Paragons of Virtue: Women and Domesticity in Seventeenth Century Dutch Art, (Cambridge, 1993), p. 6
20 Martha Hollander, An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art, (University of California Press, 2002) p. 135
21 Franits, Paragons of Virtue, p. 132-134
22 Thoen, Strategic Affection?, p. 98
23 Franits, Paragons of Virtue, p. 84
24 Elizabeth Honig, ‘The space of gender in seventeenth-century Dutch painting’, in Looking at seventeenth-century Dutch painting: realism reconsidered, ed. Wayne Franits (Cambridge, 1997), p. 188
25 Ibid, p. 188
26 Mark Paterson, The Senses of Touch, Haptics, Affects and Technologies, (Oxford, 2007), p. 8
27 Moseley-Christian, ‘Seventeenth-century pronk poppenhuisen, p, 344
28 Ibid, p. 355
29 Mary Flanagan, Critical Play: Radical Game Design, (MIT Press, 2009), p. 28
30 Hub Zwart, ‘Food Consumption in the Genomics Era – A Foucauldian Perspective’ in Tailoring Biotechnologies Vol. 1, Issue 2, Nov. 2005, p. 33
31 Halina Pasierbska, Dolls’ Houses: From the V&A Museum of Childhood, (V&A Publishing, 2008), p. 18
32 Bristol and Goddes-Brown, Dolls’ Houses, p. 26
33 Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, (Penguin, 2012), p. 327
34 Franits, Paragons of Virtue, p. 4
35 http://blog.ted.com/2013/12/13/beyonce-samples-chimamanda-ngozi-adichies-tedx-message-on-surprise-album/ (accessed 27/04/2014)

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