The Miniature Mystery of the Maybe Barbie Book

A tiny blue dollhouse book, titled Shakespeare's Plays, sitting in a person's hand.
Where did this book come from? Folger Har. 377.

A rotating selection of items from The James L. Harner Collection of Miniature Books Pertaining to Shakespeare is on display in the Folger’s Founders’ Room through 2019.

This small blue book is a tiny copy of Shakespeare’s plays. It doesn’t have real pages, which makes it a “dollhouse book,” as opposed to a “miniature book.” It’s slightly larger than a dime. The book is part of the James L. Harner Collection of Miniature Books Related to Shakespeare. Harner—a former bibliographer for Shakespeare Quarterly and the creator of the World Shakespeare Bibliography—kept notes on each item in his collection. In this case, Harner wrote that the book was “One of seven titles issued with a Barbie doll.”

But here the plot thickens. Because of its association with Mattel’s iconic doll, Folger Head of Acquisitions Melissa Cook wanted to put this dollhouse book on display in our rotating exhibition of objects from the Harner Collection. But Cook couldn’t confirm that the book actually belonged to Barbie. After researching the myriad accessories Barbie has accumulated in over 60 years, Cook decided to go to the source and ask Mattel. But Mattel didn’t know either—they wrote back and told Cook: “Ask our enthusiasts.”

“Barbie seems to be a peer of the work that gets done here” at the Folger, says Cook, reflecting on the depth of some Barbie collectors’ knowledge. For example, “the people who collect her know which shoe comes with which outfit.” So, we went to social media to ask people if they recognized this tiny blue copy of Shakespeare’s plays.

Set Grandmother Stover's Dollhouse Accessories
Set of Grandmother Stover’s Dollhouse Accessories.

Many users felt strongly that the book didn’t belong to Barbie, but two of them remembered the book from somewhere else. Facebook user Heidi suggested that the book was made by Grandmother Stover’s Dollhouse Accessories. Facebook user Katherine joined in and shared a link to an auction website. There, we found a listing for a set of Grandmother Stover’s Dollhouse Accessories that included a book just like ours, except with a green cover. Also included in the set: tiny editions of Life and Time magazines, a tiny Bible, and tiny cigarettes stubbed out in tiny ashtrays. Tiny mystery solved!

Now, thanks to Heidi and Katherine, you can find Grandmother Stover in Hamnet, the Folger’s digital catalog: “As of 2019, thought to not be a Barbie accessory, but possibly issued as a Grandmother Stover’s dollhouse accessory.”

We’re just beginning to catalog Grandmother Stover’s little book, which bears the Folger call number Har. 377. Cataloging is a process that involves much more research, and will ultimately lead us to determine how the book will be housed, handled, and cared for. Ironically, says Melissa Cook, the miniature books in the Harner Collection can be extremely hard to move and house. Some of them are part of larger sets, have accompanying miniature bookcases, or have multiple moving parts, all of which require special consideration from catalogers and conservators. “We do this in the hope that somebody needs it for their research,” says Cook. “That’s our whole point.”

If you were researching Shakespearean toys and games, for example, you could come to the Folger and find a Shakespeare bobble head, a Shakespeare action figure, a Shakespeare rubber duck, model theaters, Shakespearean board games, and more, all of which speak to the Bard’s pop culture ubiquity. And even though this book didn’t end up belonging to Barbie, she’s here at the Folger too. Our collection includes a Titania Barbie and a Juliet Barbie, both from Barbie’s Classic Ballet series. It turns out that the Folger is living in a Barbie world after all.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)