On Playhouses, Parenting and Publicity
At Knole Cottage, nothing is exactly what it seems at first glance. Inside and out, the structure appears to be a cozy middle-class house (figure 1). Its front hall opens on one side to a living room that in turn communicates with a dining room and a kitchen beyond (figures 2 and 3). On the other side, a secondary corridor provides access to two bedrooms and a full bath. Yet, Knole Cottage is not a house, but a playhouse, built at 4/5-scale for Frances Dodge, who received the cottage (originally called Hilltop Lodge) as a gift on her twelfth birthday in 1926. Far from being a middle-class girl, she was a daughter of the late John F. Dodge and one of the heirs to the Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company fortune. Indeed, Knole Cottage stood—and still stands—on the grounds of Meadow Brook Hall, in Rochester, Michigan, a 110-room Tudor Revival house that her mother, Matilda Dodge Wilson, built soon after her second marriage, in 1925.
Still, to identify Knole Cottage as Frances Dodge’s playhouse does little to clarify its role in the life of this family. To be sure, Matilda always referred to the house as belonging to Frances, even when it was still under construction. When discussing the project with her New York-based interior designers, she referred to her daughter’s aesthetic wishes—even while voicing her own strong opinions about fabric choices for curtains and portieres. In many ways, Knole Cottage is akin to early dollhouses which occupied a liminal space between the world of adults—especially the elite women who oversaw their construction and furnishing—and the sphere of children, who were sometimes allowed to play with them.
As soon as Knole Cottage was completed, its function as a plaything was complicated by another narrative, one that held that the house was intended as a didactic tool to help Frances hone her housekeeping skills. Her grandfather Wilson composed a twelve-stanza sonnet that referenced housekeeping as her “life’s career”; rather than evoking Frances at play, the poem offered an image of Frances “In a beautiful cottage/On the slope of a hill/In miniature form/[where] She works with a will.” Matilda shared this view of the cottage, telling newspaper reporters that she had built the playhouse “not only that Frances might have a place to play, but that she might learn from first-hand experience early in life the art of being a home-keeper.”
Given that the Dodge heiress would never be called upon to sweep a floor or make a bed, it is impossible to take this narrative at face value. Instead, it is better understood as one component of her mother’s larger campaign to get the playhouse and, by extension, her own parenting skills into the public eye. Tapping into the power of the press in this publicity effort, Matilda initially used short items in the society pages to amplify the impact of social events focused on the playhouse. Soon, however, she moved to facilitating the publication of longer feature stories, providing newspapers with professional photographs of the completed playhouse and giving reporters unusual access to Frances and her brother, Daniel. One such story appeared in the Detroit Free Press on Christmas Day 1926, while a similar story was syndicated by the Newspaper Enterprise Association (N.E.A.; figure 4). Replete with seven photographs (including five interiors and one of Frances herself), this story appeared in at least forty-two newspapers throughout North America between December 20, 1926 and January 31, 1927.
At moments, the N.E.A. story presented Frances as a somewhat spoiled child whose material comfort had made her slightly out of touch with normal life. The story, however, also commented approvingly on Matilda’s parenting decisions, observing that “both children attend public school, and their mother is trying to use their little play houses as sources of training for them. Frances is already learning to be a housewife—to cook and sweep and clean and handle accounts.” In this sense, the playhouse served Matilda well, as material evidence of her dedication as a mother, someone who devoted time, attention, and substantial financial resources to ensure that her daughter was equipped with the domestic skills that most women needed to have. Seen in this light, it was, perhaps, immaterial to Matilda and others if Frances would use those skills or not.
An open question remains: if Matilda’s publicity campaign was as deliberate as it appears to have been, why did she choose this moment to unleash it? Frances, after all, was twelve, and would soon outgrow the doll play that was scripted into the building itself. The fact that the Kalamazoo Gazette was the first Michigan newspaper to publish the N.E.A. story suggests that Matilda’s actions may have had something to do with her stepson, John Duval Dodge, who had been briefly jailed in Kalamazoo before standing trial there in 1922 for reckless driving and violating prohibition laws. The charges stemmed from an incident in which the young Dodge (already 24 years old and married) and a male friend offered three young women a lift home from a dance hall late one night. When Dodge instead drove out into the country to show how fast his car could go, one of the alarmed women leapt from the vehicle and was later found by another motorist, who took her to the hospital. Although she recovered and John Duval was eventually acquitted on the reckless driving charge, the incident made sensational reading, especially when the young millionaire (as newspapers tended to identify him) was imprisoned the very next week in the Detroit House of Corrections on a separate speeding charge that had earned him a five-day sentence. Michigan papers were almost gleeful in their descriptions of John Duval’s fall from grace, as when the St. Joseph Herald-Press ran a front-page story with the headline “Millionaire Washes Dishes; John Duval Dodge Also Shoveling Coal at House of Correction.”
Immediately after his acquittal, John Duval made a public show of “turning over a new leaf,” but also continued to make news as he pursued a larger share of the Dodge fortune. Disowned by his disapproving father in 1917 when he had married at age 19, John Duval challenged his father’s will and in 1921 received a settlement of $1.6 million (an estimated $22.8 million in 2019 dollars) from the other heirs. Far from satisfied, in April 1925, he attempted to claim part of the estate of Anna Margaret Dodge, Matilda’s youngest child who had died a year earlier at the age of four, as a result of complications of the measles. Until that matter was settled, John Duval contended, his stepmother and aunt should not be allowed to sell Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company, as the sale would impact Anna Margaret’s estate. Although the judge declined to issue a temporary injunction and the sale eventually went through as planned, John Duval’s legal action was front-page news across the country, thanks to another news syndicate, the Associated Press. Only in January 1926 did newspapers report the court’s finding that John Duval was not entitled to a share of Anna Margaret’s estate.
It is easy to imagine the displeasure that Matilda felt in 1922 when her stepson brought the Dodge name into disrepute through his reckless behavior. By 1926, she may have also felt that news coverage of John Duval’s legal actions called into question her fitness as a mother. Certainly, it called attention to the death of her young daughter. Would some readers think she might have prevented that tragedy? Seen in this context, it may be significant that a portrait of little Anna Margaret hangs over the fireplace in Knole Cottage. Hard to ignore in this prominent location, the portrait was mentioned in the widely reprinted N.E.A. story, helping to reassure readers that the dead child was cherished by her mother who had also successfully instilled appropriately tender feelings in her surviving daughter.
Matilda might well have been concerned that news coverage of her 1925 legal battles with John Duval made her seem grasping and unfeminine in her efforts to retain control over the dead girl’s estate. In fact, Matilda evinced no inclination to alter her own aspirations when it came to financial management. In 1928, the courts would, in fact, award the entirety of Anna Margaret’s $7.5 million (an estimated $107.3 million in 2019 dollars) to her mother. Three years later, the news media reported that Matilda had become “the first woman in America to be elected head of a major bank,” further explaining that her experience directing the Dodge estate had “made her the best informed woman in high finance in the United States.”
In this sense, the publicity around Frances’s playhouse takes on added significance. Through her careful campaign, Matilda presented herself as a mother committed to ensuring that her first-born was prepared to assume a woman’s proper place, even as she herself regularly stepped out of the domestic sphere. Thanks to her efforts at Knole Cottage, she all but invited the press to laud to her daughter with the headline once used to shame her stepson. “Millionaire Washes Dishes,” indeed.
Knole Cottage may well have been “the finest dolls’ house in the world,” but its history also reveals that an ideal childhood was often elusive, even for youngsters whose families controlled great wealth. There, as at other elite settings, nothing was exactly what it seemed at first glance.
 Although Knole Cottage is mentioned only briefly, the design and construction of Meadow Brook Hall is well documented in John B. Cameron, Meadow Brook Hall: Tudor Revival Architecture and Decoration (Rochester, Mich.: Meadow Brook Art Gallery, Oakland University, 1979).
 For instance, after noting that “the screen which was to set between the dining room and living room . . . is not high enough for Frances,” Matilda continued with her own view: “I think velvet would be a little too heavy for this small house.” Matilda Wilson, Letter to The Arden Studios, 9 December 1926. Meadow Brook Hall Archives.
 The earliest dollhouses were not children’s playthings. Ariane Fennetaux, “Transitional Pandoras: Dolls in the Long Eighteenth Century,” in Childhood by Design: Toys and the Material Culture of Childhood, 1700-Present, ed. Megan Brandow-Faller (New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2018), 53-54.
 Grandpa Wilson, “Frances’ Twelfth Birthday,” framed poem, dated November 27, 1926, on display in Knole Cottage.
 “State Girl Has Finest Dolls’ House in World; Built So Dodge Heiress Can Learn First Hand Art of Home-Keeping,” Kalamazoo Gazette, December 21, 1926, p. 21.
 Although its headline varied from paper to paper, the story appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette (December 21, 1926, p. 21) as “State Girl Has Finest Dolls’ House in World; Built So Dodge Heiress Can Learn First Hand Art of Home-Keeping.”
 “State Girl Has Finest Dolls’ House in World,” p. 21.
 “Millionaire in Michigan Prison; Two Young Women Bring Charges Against John Duval Dodge,” The [Raleigh, North Carolina] News and Observer, March 14, 1922, p. 8.
 For his acquittal, see “Dodge Freed by Kalamazoo Jury; Acquitted of Driving Automobile While Intoxicated, Causing Injury to Girl; Faces Another Charge; Held on Charge of Possessing, Transporting and Distributing Liquors,” The [Battle Creek, Michigan] Enquirer and Evening News, March 23, 1922, p. 7. He was, however, found guilt of breaking prohibition laws. See “Dodge Convicted Again; Youth Is Found to Have Had Liquor on Automobile When Girl Was Hurt,” New York Times, April 20, 1922, p. 7. For his incarceration in Detroit, see “Bartlett Sends Millionaire to Jail Five Days; John Duval Dodge Spends First Night on Cot in Jail Corridor at Detroit; Donned Prison Garb; Former Battle Creek Man Who is Detroit Judge Show No Mercy with Speeder,” The [Battle Creek, Michigan] Enquirer and Evening News, March 17, 1922, p. 1.
 “Millionaire Washes Dishes; John Duval Dodge Also Shoveling Coal at House of Correction.” St. Joseph [Michigan] Herald-Press March 18, 1922, p. 1.
 “Time to Turn Over a New Leaf, Dodge Decides; Says He’ll Show Detroit He Is Made of ‘Right Kind of Stuff,’” Detroit Free Press, March 26, 1922, p.1.
 Charles K. Hyde, The Dodge Brothers: The Men, the Motor Cars, and the Legacy (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 178. The conversion of 1921 dollars into 2019 dollars comes from the CPI Inflation Calculator: https://www.usinflationcalculator.com, accessed June 20, 2019.
 John F. Dodge’s Son Sues to Halt Auto Firm Sale,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 4, 1925, p. 1.
 “Dodge Bros. Sale Is Not Affected; Action Begun by John Duval Dodge Has No Bearing on Purchase of Auto Plant by Dillon, Read & Co.,” The Burlington [Vermont] Free Press, April 6, 1925, p. 1.
 “John D. Dodge Loses Verdict In Estate Suit,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, January 20, 1926, p. 8.
 “Daughter’s $7,500,000 To J.F. Dodge’s Widow,” New York Times, April 4, 1928, p. 31. The conversion of 1921 dollars into 2019 dollars comes from the CPI Inflation Calculator: https://www.usinflationcalculator.com, accessed June 20, 2019.
 “Bank Head,” The [Brooklyn, New York] Standard Union, July 7, 1931, p. 25.