How Dutch Dollhouse Mania Explains the U.S. Housing Bust

May 23 (Bloomberg) -- After the U.S. housing crash began in 2007, the media often made comparisons with the Dutch tulip mania of 1637, one of the first and most dramatic speculative bubbles in the Western world.

A different Dutch craze of that era -- for lavish dollhouses, displayed by and for adults -- also holds a powerful lesson. In both financial and emotional terms, these grownup toys were the real precursor to our recent obsession with house and home.

In the Dutch Golden Age, a new and powerful merchant class emerged with the birth of speculative capitalism. Between 1608 and the 1660s, the Netherlands became the richest nation the Western world had ever seen. Tulip bulbs, like the gardens where they were planted, were one way to absorb all that extra cash.

Another popular asset was a “cabinet of wonder.” Merchants returning from the East and West Indies built elaborate cabinets filled with artifacts from their journeys -- shells, tusks, insects and feather headdresses. The cabinets, widely considered the forebears to today’s museums, tamed all that exotic wonder. They brought order and sense to a wild new world.

Not Playthings

The dollhouses stood right next to the wonder cabinets in Dutch living rooms. They were exact replicas, miniature rooms furnished with fine Dutch craftsmanship -- tiny silver platters in the kitchen, inlaid walnut sideboards in the hall.

“The master of the house would open the drawers of his cabinet and explain the contents to his guests, while his wife gave a comprehensive demonstration of her doll’s house,” according to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. “She would display the contents of the cupboards, reveal hidden spaces, light the lamps and let real water gush from the fountain in the garden.” Alongside the spoils of world dominance, the dollhouses said: “Here’s what all that risk and travel is for!”

The dollhouses were “not playthings but miniature memorials, records of dearly beloved objects,” according to Witold Rybczynski, author of “Home: A Short History of an Idea.” He believes the bourgeois Dutch invented the very idea of “home.” They brought “together the meaning of house and of household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection,” he wrote. “You could walk out of the house, but you always returned home.”

At the same time, the Dutch were conflicted about showing off. These same families hung “vanitas” paintings on their walls -- expensive oil paintings of gold treasure next to skulls. The bones reminded them how sinful and dangerous luxury could be. The dollhouses were like little stage plays to reassure a deeply Protestant society that all this investment in home -- financial and emotional -- was morally upright. Displaying your mini-silver was a way of demonstrating your embrace of everything the home was coming to represent: family, community, nation.

The house, then as now, was one of the family’s greatest assets. The after-dinner dollhouse show reassured the Dutch that their homes could, and should, absorb all that capital. Like the cabinets of wonder, the dollhouses brought order and sense to a wild new world of abundance.

Valuable Assets

They were also investments in themselves. They were commissioned and sold at auction, in the same way as oil paintings and other luxury crafts. Collectors tracked their worth as investments in account books. They were listed as assets in dowries. One collector charged admission to visitors. A dollhouse owned by an Amsterdam merchant’s wife named Petronella Oortman, which is displayed at the Rijksmuseum, was worth almost the price of an actual canal house.

It’s hard to imagine 20th-century Americans putting up skull pictures to remind themselves not to get too rich. But just like the Dutch, we started to feel anxious about how much we had invested in the wild new housing market well before it crashed. Prices in some metropolitan markets, such as Los Angeles and Miami, increased 60 percent or more from 2001 to 2006.

We expressed our anxiety in after-dinner rituals involving a different kind of standing cabinet.

During the housing madness, tens of millions of Americans watched a sentimental reality show called “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Each episode featured a deserving family that was down on its luck -- facing illness, disaster or other hardship. An army of friendly neighbors and local businesses would come to their aid by building a lavish, all-American vision of home. The show’s peak popularity coincided almost exactly with the peak of the real-estate bubble.

As housing prices ticked up beyond rational levels, “Extreme Makeover” reminded us how much home was worth emotionally. When the helpers finished, we got a tour of the house on our little screens: its seven perfectly appointed bedrooms, its granite counters, its private motocross track or carousel or spaceship room. We wanted those hardworking, innocent, injured people to have that beautiful house. We wanted it so badly. Every week, we reassured ourselves: Home is priceless! These people deserve those mansions!

When the bubble burst, the show’s ratings declined. Suddenly, the seven bedrooms and the indoor spaceships started to seem ... a little extreme. The Dutch stopped building dollhouses when the Golden Age ended. This year, five years into the housing crash, ABC cancelled “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” We might ask ourselves what else is coming to an end.

(Michelle Chihara is a freelance writer and Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of California, Irvine. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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