Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dunham's Cocoanut Doll House - Cute As a Quill

© Kathy Duncan, 2015

I follow Christine LeFever's blog, and today she posted picture of her newly acquired dollhouse, an advertising piece for Dunham's Cocoanut. You can see pictures of Christine's dollhouse here. And you can see pictures of Tracy's dollhouse here.

After I drooled over their pictures and noodled around on google looking for information on Dunham's Cocoanut dollhouses, I discovered the same basic story everywhere: the houses were made in the 1890s as an advertising premium, but no one knows how they were distributed. Well, that's like a siren song for this girl. I should be cleaning the house, or working on a flimsy, or getting materials ready for the new school year, but NO, I decided to poke around in old newspapers looking for period information about Dunham's Cocoanut dollhouses.

Here's what I found. The only year in which the dollhouses were referenced was 1903. It looks like it was a premium that was only offered during the spring and summer of 1903. It also looks like grocers created their own rules for giving away the dollhouses. Oh, and dollhouse was two words in 1903: doll house.

Less than a handful of merchants were willing to go to the expense of including information about the dollhouses in their advertisements. It seems logical that they provided information about the giveaways in their in-store display for their regular customers and saw no need to go to the extra expense of advertising it.

The Cook Grocery, Co. in Evansville, Indiana added a small reference to the dollhouse in their July 1903 advertisement: "Dunham's Cocoanut Doll House. Have you seen it. Cute as a quill. Bring your little girl to see it." Presumably, the customer went in to see the dollhouse and learned about the giveaway rules in the store. Whatever the rules were, if the little girl also went along, then she would, of course, want the dollhouse and be eager to do whatever it took to get one.

E.M. Schreiner's Grocery Market devoted an entire advertisement to the dollhouses. Notice that there are no specifics in this giveaway. Surely, Schreiner did not have enough dollhouses to give one with each purchase, so the customer must have gotten to the store and found out there was more too it than just buying a package of shredded cocoanut and getting a dollhouse.  On average, a pound of Dunham's shredded cocoanut sold for 25 to 29 cents in 1903. Smaller packages ranged from 10 to 15 cents, with a special sale price as low as 7 cents.

Fuller and Douglass Grocers in Salem, Oregon not only devoted a full advertisement for Dunham's Cocoanut Dollhouses, but they laid out the rules for getting one. Apparently, Fuller & Douglass only had two of the dollhouses, but could have easily sold more than two crates full of cocoanut this way. This suggests that there was a limited number of dollhouses available to merchants; hence the rarity of the dollhouses today. It seems likely that Cook's Grocery in Indiana and Schreiner's Grocery in Ohio may have only had one dollhouse each. In all likelihood, they probably also gave theirs away through a similar contest, the rules of which may have suggested by Dunham's. 

Some have suggested that the dollhouses were given away by collecting premiums and mailing them in, but I saw no evidence of that. Plus, it seems impractical. Remember, the dollhouse was originally a crate designed to hold packages of shredded cocoanut. Shipping them separately as premiums does not seem very cost effective. However, there is evidence that the furniture may have been given away separately. You can see an envelope of parlor furniture here. Note that there is no date on the envelope. More importantly, this envelope was never mailed. The notation in the corner states that it was presented by John Ellis to Florence  of Cleveland, Missouri. Could he be a grocer presenting the crate and sheet of furniture to the child who won it? 

It also seems very probable to me that many of the dollhouses may have never been given away. Instead, they may have gone to the little daughters and granddaughters of the grocers. I suppose it is also possible that wealthier customers could have purchased a whole crate and received the dollhouse, but would they do that if they could afford fancier dollhouses for their daughters? I can imagine the crates being deliver to upper class households, purchasing cocoanut in bulk because they entertained on a grand scale. Those crates may have gone home with the kitchen staff. Just to insure that the public knew the grocers had the dollhouses, Dunham's included this information in their own advertisement in Good Housekeeping in 1903. The interesting bit of information here is that the printed sheet of furniture came with the dollhouse crate.

If you read the fine print in this advertisement, you can see that Dunham's offered to mail a circular describing the dollhouse along with 54 "Dainty Dessert" recipes to anyone who requested it. A "receipt" was what recipes were called in that time. I'm betting all of those recipes involved shredded cocoanut.

One reference to the dollhouse did turn up after 1903. In the Annual Report of the Hospital and Dispensary of New York Medical College and Hospital for Women, 1906, under donations received from October 1, 1905 to September 30, 1906, appeared a donation from Dunham's Mfg. Co. - 2 boxes (doll house) cocoanut. Did the giveaways continue until 1906? Or was this three year old shredded cocoanut being donated to the hospital? Given the conditions of that time period, it seems more likely that Dunham's is clearing out old stock.

Okay, that's my frippery for the day. Now to organize a notebook of workshop materials that have been gathering dust for a few weeks. I wonder, though, if I could find a copy of Dunham's circular...I wonder if it had pictures of the dollhouse...


  1. Kathy, I am so excited about this information you found. I want to say that the ad you have shared from Salem, Oregon, says they had two of the doll houses. My doll house was found in a small, old town not far from Salem, at an estate sale wherein these people had been major hoarders! I am inclined to say I'm quite sure my doll house is one of those two!!!

    1. Christine - A girl can always dream. If the collectors you acquired it from were longtime residents of the area, it certainly strengthens the argument that yours could be one of the two given away by Fuller & Douglas. This is exciting!