Five Questions with William Bird, Smithsonian Curator

In the summer of 2008, as the historic presidential election was building steam, I traveled with photographer (and regular Print contributor) Ian Allen to Washington, D.C., to do interviews and photo shoots for STOP SMILING magazine’s second-to-last issue, themed around the nation’s capital.

One of people I met was William L. Bird, Jr. (Larry to his friends), a historian and curator at the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. His specialty is contemporary politics and popular culture. And along with his good friend and colleague, Harry Rubenstein, Larry has spent the last 25 years cataloging election paraphernalia: from campaign buttons to front-lawn banners—he’s seen it all.

Since that interview, Larry and I have stayed in touch. I began to go through his previously published books: Paint by Number: The How-to Craze that Swept the Nation, Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front (with Harry R. Rubenstein), and Holidays on Display, all published by Princeton Architectural Press in New York City.

Before I left Washington, Larry showed me around the Museum of American History, which had been closed for renovations. Amid the storage catacombs beneath the museum, we came upon an eye-popping doll house, built and curated by DC librarian Faith Bradford, who spent a lifetime accumulating and constructing 1,354 miniatures that fill its 23 intricately detailed rooms.

This doll house is the subject of Larry’s latest book, America’s Doll House: The Miniature World of Faith Bradford (Princeton Architectural Press). For this month’s Five Questions, Bird took some time to talk with me about Miss Bradford and her life-long obsession with all things small.

Early in the book, you mention that Faith Bradford’s doll house was one of the most popular exhibits at the museum. Is that still the case today?
It is one the most popular displays in the museum today, and it’s been that way since it was first put on view in 1951. Adults come by who remember seeing it as a child. In some ways, its continuing popularity is explained by the prominent place that it enjoys on the floor, always by an elevator, an escalator along a wall in some public space. Never in a gallery. As the work of an adult miniaturist, it has never fit the museum’s classification scheme, so it sits alone by itself. It’s part of the museum’s history, but never quite of it.

From the biographies of the fictional family to the textiles and fabric patterns throughout the house to the furnishings of the 23-rooms, Bradford truly had an eye for interior design, even if her old-fashioned tastes were rooted in the early 20th century. Where do you think she developed her design sense? Furthermore: Did the fact that Bradford was the first woman to head the national library’s card catalog division play any role?
You don’t need to look very far for the sources of her design sense. Her mother was a poet and theatrical pageant producer, and there is a strong streak of creative play and imaginative role-playing going on in her models. As for décor, pretty much what you see in her earliest model house are the miniatures that she played with as a girl, and that reflect what she grew up with. It’s all there—the Victorian bric-a-brac, the cluttered desk, the groaning library shelves, heavy mahogany furnishings, wallpapers and rugs, with the lightly-worn detail of daily life right down to the family portraits tacked on the walls. More puzzling are the likely sources for her second model, the Modern House, that she finished in 1959. She described it as built of “concrete,” a pretty high-end architectural material for a residence even then. She hoped to obtain miniature chairs for it that looked like “potato chips.” As the former head of the Catalog Division of the Library of Congress, she obviously knew how to get and find such information.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Bradford would give person tours of the doll house. Was that unusual at the time? Could an arrangement like that be made today?
The donor who comes with her collection is not that unusual in the long history of the National Museum. But the nature of Bradford’s display, and her longevity, is. She would visit the model a couple of times a year and give impromptu tours of it. In her head, the model was never really finished. It was as alive to her as it was imaginary to others, and that was a problem for some in the museum who regarded her Dolls’ House as neither an accurate representation of a house, nor a dollhouse that a child had ever played with. It’s not likely that the arrangement that Bradford enjoyed would happen today, but it could.

Bradford never married or had any of her own children. Do you think the doll house became a surrogate?
I try not to put her on the couch, but the Doll family that she modeled was rooted in her own—especially on her mother’s side, that was quite extensive and financially well-off. In her generation, however, it never came to pass. One of her brothers died in his twenties and her sister and brother-in-law (with whom she lived) lost two children in infancy. One can easily weigh her models as a kind of comfort, if not a complete compensation.

By the late 50s, the Smithsonian commissioned Bradford to build out a Modern House. Do you think the Modern House has the same cachet as the original Victorian doll house?
People in the museum who saw the Modern House before it was consigned and lost in storage in 1959 certainly thought so. Judging from the fabric swatches and material samples that Bradford pasted in the scrapbook that has survived, you get a sense of how bright the thing is, in contrast to the muted, toned-down finish of her first model. For now, it’s all we have.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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