Doll houses, miniatures and furniture have been enchanting the young and old for hundreds (and possibly millions) of years. Over those years, many different materials have been used to fabricate and manufacture doll house furniture. Most people contemplate early miniatures being produced from wood, fabric and metal. (Have you ever wondered if cave girls and their mothers enjoyed rearranging their doll's stones and pebbles next to the camp fire?) As history progressed into the 1940's, manufacturers turned to plastic as the material of choice for doll house furniture. This guide discusses some of the storage and maintenance challenges faced by the vintage plastic doll house furniture collectors of today.
Plastic became the choice material for American doll house furniture manufacturers (and other toy manufacturers) in the 1940's during World War II. Wood and metal were necessary materials in the war effort and therefore the "relatively" new process of plastic moulding became more widely integrated into the domestic marketplace at that time. Plastic is still being used today because of its durability and its low labor cost of production.
Storage and Display Challenges
Yes, plastic is durable in the sense that it will not rust or rot, but it has its weaknesses. Still, the plastic of yesterday was not quite as hardy as the plastic of today. Even though vintage pieces of Renwal, Marx, Plasco, and Jaydon will still exist millions of years from now, the condition in which they will exist is the real question. This section will discuss several of plastic's "kryptonites" and what you can do to protect your collection.
Flexible plastics (such as vinyl, rubber, etc. which some of us call "elastomers") can cause other plastics to corrode or melt due to prolonged contact. Essentially, when the elastomer is in contact with another elastomer or a hard plastic, the contact surface (or interface) will begin to corrode or melt. This is especially true for two (2) elastomers in contact with each other. However, it has been reported in the book titled "Plastic Toys: Dime Store Dreams of 40's and 50's" by Bill Hanlon that contact between vinyl and hard plastic Renwal can cause melting on the Renwal surface. (Another eBayer "renwal" shared this tip with me to add to this guide and I think it is the best of the lot!!!!!!)
When storing Renwal or other plastic furniture, it is best to keep the furniture seperate from other toys or plastic items. If at all possible, it is best to store the pieces individually wrapped (in paper) to keep them from touching each other or anything else. One rule of thumb in the plastic world is that "Like Dissolves Like", so carefully avoid placing plastic bags, rubbers, vinyls and even hard plastics in contact with each other during prolonged storage. (Thanks, renwal, for the tip!)
Solar abuse to plastics of all types is really two-fold. First, you have the nasty tendency of plastic to melt when it gets too hot. (This will be discussed later under the section Heat.) Second, you have that pesky ultra-violet (UV) radiation that is harmful not only to humans, but also to plastics.
Concern about UV rays in our environment seems to be at an all-time high these days because of the correlation between UV exposure and the risk of skin cancer. UV exposure is also a concern for plastics because of the radiation's ability to weaken plastics and produce a "chalky" appearance on the exterior of the product. Some modern plastics are manufactured with either UV inhibitors or are given a UV inhibitor coating to hinder UV damage. (This is especially true for plastics that will be placed in service in the outdoors.)
Don't go hide your Renwal in the closet just yet. UV damage normally occurs only after prolonged or repeated exposure. For most of us, the dark shadows or the false lighting of a miniature doll house is more than enough protection for our vintage plastics. But (there is always a but), keep the following cautions in mind:
- Don't place your doll house furniture in a sunny display window unless the windows are UV reducing windows or you have protected the furniture with some sort of shading.
- If you are photographing your pieces in natural light, limit their sun exposure to only that necessary for the photo session.
- If you are transporting your pieces by car, make sure that they are shaded and cooled in the heat of the day.
We all know that plastics melt, but some plastics melt at relatively low temperatures. In most cases, it doesn't take a flame, a stove, or a dishwasher heating element to slightly melt or warp a Renwal. (I haven't personally identified the melting temperature of a Renwal, I'm just relaying my knowledge of ordinary plastics here.) Sometimes, built-up environmental heat can ruin a prized plastic miniature.
A comfortable temperature for you is typically a safe temperature for your plastics. Except for the new super plastics that can withstand stove and oven temperatures or industrial plastics that can withstand 140 degrees F and above, some plastics aren't engineered to holdout in temperatures above 120 degrees F or lower. With this said, its always best to keep your collectibles in a comfortable tempered environment. Storage in an attic is risky to say the least. Storage in a car on a hot day under a beach towel is even riskier. (I melted a pair of eye glasses once in the before-mentioned conditions.) Be safe!
Many plastics become very brittle when subjected to cold temperatures. Even temperatures as high as 45 degree F can be cold enough to cause embrittlement. If pressure is applied to plastic once it becomes brittle, it can fracture. Many plastics today will lose their brittleness once rewarmed and I'm assuming the same is true for the vintage plastics. If this assumption is true, then the pieces are only in jeopardy when cold.
As stated above, a comfortable temperature for you is typically a safe temperature for your plastics. It's always best to keep your collectibles in a comfortable tempered environment. If your furniture is subject to cold, however, allow it to warm up naturally to a living room temperature (65 F to 75 F) before handling it.
Vintage plastic doll house furniture (specifically Renwal) can be a subject of mold attack. Plastic surfaces are not perfectly smooth and have microscopic crevices that make excellent nesting places for mold and other contaminants. (This is one of the reasons that highly polished stainless steel piping and equipment is used rather than plastic piping and equipment in food manufacturing.) Plastics attacked by mold can suffer aesthetically and can also be weakened.
The presence of mold on a piece is visible to the naked eye. On white or cream pieces, mold is sometimes white and powdery. (The color of the mold can vary, however, depending on what type of mold has infested the piece.) The best method of protection for your miniatures is to inspect them periodically and clean them appropriately following the advice in the next section, Cleaning Your Plastics.
Cleaning Your Plastics
Periodic cleaning of your furniture is necessary, because, hey, "dirt happens"! Sometimes, only light dusting is required. Sometimes, your full arsenal of cleaning weaponry will be called upon at once. A photo below shows the heavy dirt build-up on three MARX pieces that I purchased from a garage sale. It appeared that these pieces were stored unwrapped in an area with lots of dirt!
When dusting your furniture, use a soft dust rag or cloth dust magnet. Paper towels can leave behind lint and course materials can leave scratches on some furniture. Its best not to use furniture polish, because polish can leave residue.
I have found that the best method for cleaning plastic furniture is with tepid soapy water and a soft cloth. This method was used to clean the dirty pieces pictured above with clean results as shown below.
I use the following procedure for cleaning my pieces:
- Add a teaspoon of Dawn or other dishwashing liquid to a medium sized bowl. (I've found that dishwashing liquid is better than other types of soap, because it will remove any grease that has formed on the pieces and the soap is then easy to rinse away.)
- Fill the bowl with tepid (65 F to 90 F) water making sure that the soap is well distributed in the soap/water solution.
- Clean least dirty pieces first and most dirty pieces last. Consider cleaning any pieces with mold attack seperate from your other pieces.
- Use a soft cloth dipped in the soapy water to surface clean each piece of furniture. (In the photo above, I am using a soft diaper rag for washing.) Apply only mild pressure to pieces with thin legs (chairs or tables), thin components (bedspreads) or other protrusions that could break. Be careful not to wet cardboard components of the furniture. It's also best not to immerse your furniture. Pieces, such as Plasco, that have plastic backing can retain water when immersed because they are not completely sealed. Surface cleaning is always best in these cases. Use your best judgement. (See examples of pieces with cardboard components (Plasco TV with cardboard picture) and plastic backing (Plasco vanity) below this section.
- For cleaning crevices and details, use a cotton swab dipped in the soapy solution.
- Rinse the furniture with a soft cloth or cotton swab dipped in clean tepid water. Again, don't run pieces under the water tap if they have cardboard components or plastic backing.
- Dry your pieces with a soft dish towel. Allow the pieces to completely air dry before redisplaying or packaging.
Cautions for Cleaning and Repair
The A-#1 dangers to plastic doll house furniture are solvents, solvent cleaners, and solvent glues. Solvents such as fingernail polish remover (specifically acetone based), paint thinner, and plastic joining compound can damage a piece instantly. (See the example of a Renwal grand piano with apparent glue spot on the top.) Even alcohol is a mild solvent and can cause damage if not handled properly. Unless you are skilled in using these materials to cleanup or repair furniture, don't do it! I recommend that you find a professional to service your furniture if you feel that it requires more attention than you can give it. (Sometimes, the amatuer applied cure is worse than the ailment.)
Play Keep Away
Some of you will agree that vintage doll house furniture is not a toy. This policy is in the best interest of both the furniture and children.
Vintage furniture that has opening drawers and doors is a curiosity to children and it beckons them to investigate. It's very difficult for me to clean, photograph, or display my Renwal pieces around my 3-year old because he constantly wants to touch them. To pacify him, I offered him a set of tiny Superior soft plastic furniture. Because this furniture doesn't "operate" or look like real furniture, he isn't interested in it. It's only the fragile, intricate stuff that really entices the little ones.
With the above stated, vintage hard plastic furniture is not safe in the hands of youngsters. The pieces were manufactured 40-60 years ago and are not as durable as plastic toys manufactured today.
Again, with the above stated, children are not safe with vintage hard plastic furniture in their hands. The pieces were manufactured 40-60 years ago and not to the safety standards required for toys today. Tiny drawers, legs, and other pieces removed from the furniture can cause choking, cuts and could literally "put an eye out". So, always err on the side of caution and either remove your pieces when children are present or make it known that the furniture is to SEE only AND NOT to TOUCH.
Enhance Your Education
There are a few books on the market that are dedicated to informing the collector about doll house furniture. There are fewer still that are specific to the vintage plastic furniture. "Tomart's Price Guide to Tin Litho Doll Houses and Plastic Doll House Furniture" is one such collector's book that is more or less dedicated to plastic doll house furniture. If you plan to drop into your local bookstore for a copy, you more than likely won't find it. The best place to find it is online and of course, on eBay.
As mentioned above, the book "Plastic Toys: Dimestore Dreams of the 40's and 50's" by Bill Hanlon is a great reference for those of us that collect or deal in vintage toys.