pages 16-17 pages 20-21 

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Helen Bruce Miniature Shop Scene

HELEN BRUCE MINIATURE MILLINERY SHOP SCENE
American, early 1950s

The world of the miniature has long held a fascination for adults as well as children, and dollhouses and other small-scale interiors have often been commissioned by these enthusiasts. In the 1950s, the collaboration between Helen Bruce (b. 1880) and Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888–1960) resulted in over thirty highly imaginative, carefully researched and meticulously constructed miniature scenes, depicting domestic and commercial interiors and landscape settings of nineteenth-century America. An important and early collector of Americana, Electra Webb founded the Shelburne Museum in Vermont in 1947 to showcase her rich holdings of objects including weather vanes, carriages and sleighs, furniture, textiles, and toys. In the late 1940s, Webb met Helen Bruce, owner of an antiques shop in New York who also sold dolls and miniature accessories. Shortly thereafter, she began to commission dioramas from Bruce that reflected her interest in American material culture. Although Bruce moved to California in 1951, the fruitful partnership between the two women continued throughout the decade. Their correspondence regarding the creation of the dioramas reveals an extensive and lively discussion pertaining to all kinds of details.

This captivating scene of a milliner’s establishment of the 1820s relates to several in the Shelburne Museum that evoke shop interiors and fashionable goods of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and is particularly similar to another millinery vitrine currently on view (1952.414). Standing amidst an abundant display is the painted wooden figure of a potential customer wearing a striped pink silk dress and lace cap. In addition to the beribboned, floral and feather trimmed hats, the marbleized counters and many shelves behind her offer a tempting array of Lilliputian wares including bandboxes, printed cotton and needlepoint reticules, braided silk miser’s purses, plain and figured ribbons, kid gloves, seed pearl and paste jewelry, faceted glass perfume bottles, fans, a pink satin fringed parasol, feather sprays, and an ermine boa.

Bruce’s attention to historical accuracy is evident in these diminutive objects, many of which date to the period of the scene. In her letters to Webb, Bruce refers to antique ribbons, trumeau mirrors, fans, and vases. Bandboxes—which Webb collected—were especially popular in America from 1820 to 1850. The bandboxes filling the upper shelf and arranged under the counter are made from eighteenth-century printed book papers; some of those used in this scene are identical to papers that appear in a large Hat and Dress Shop at the Shelburne (1952.431) as well as their Millinery diorama.

On the back of this vignette is a label from the well-known New York and Paris milliner and designer, Adolfo, who opened a salon on East 56th Street in 1963 and remained at that address through the mid-1970s. How fitting that these miniature headwear confections might have been displayed among their life-size counterparts.

14” H x 13.25” W

pages 16-17 pages 20-21  

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