Mini-history of R. Bliss Manufacturing Co
Feb 13, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As a vintage enthusiast I collect all kinds of treasures: books, pottery, and clothes are among my favorites. Yet, miniatures always make my heart flutter. There is something special about dollhouses, equipped with their little furniture pieces, that speaks to me. My great-uncle made me a dollhouse and it remains one of my most beloved possessions. Today I’d like to introduce you to one of history’s great toy companies, famous for their dollhouse designs. Join me as we tour the mini-history of R. Bliss Manufacturing Co.
Rufus Bliss (who put the “R” in remarkable), founded the Rhode Island-based company in the early 1800s. Like most of the entrepreneurs we’ve met throughout history, Rufus’ endeavor evolved significantly over the years. What began as a screw & clamp operation, soon morphed into a focus on toys (particularly dollhouses and ships). While it’s not clear what inspired Rufus to shift his focus, we know he had a keen eye for technological developments. His invention of a particular cutting machine meant that his screws were produced with a level of accuracy unheard of in the past. That attention to precision is also found in the toys he designed. As an example, collectors are often drawn to R. Bliss pieces due to their bright & crisp lithographs.
Lithography was a printing method that was leveraged for mass production – think of all the theatrical posters or billboards. While it wasn’t known for its high level of quality, R. Bliss soon changed that. Printed atop a simple, wooden frame his toys showcased a richness of color unparalleled by his contemporaries. Looking at a Bliss toy, it’s easy to see this was a passion project. Given that obvious dedication, it’s funny to think that the company had been established for over three decades before branching out into toy production.
R. Bliss dollhouses arrived on the scene by the 1890s and most are in the Queen Anne style – what enthusiasts call “gingerbread.” Modeled after German dollhouses, these ornately decorated beauties were the gem of young girls’ bedrooms nationwide. In fact, Bliss was one of the very first American toy companies to make dollhouses. While most of their products were around 10 inches tall, the more detailed models stood at a staggering 26 inches. At over two feet tall, can you imagine the wonder that would spark in a child’s imagination?!
Given the relative ease of manufacturing (after all the framework was simple & the refined printing processes were easy to reproduce), R. Bliss dollhouses were accessible to families of modest means. Models were sold in stores and by catalog across the country – flying off the shelves to the delight of many a little girl! Collectors can identify a R. Bliss design by finding the three digit code that is printed on the house. Unfortunately, the printing location isn’t consistent as Bliss designed in a variety of looks & sizes (although, as noted the Queen Anne look was the most common). The code reveals the catalog number: an example is 573-F. Only one model is known to have a code omitted – the Adirondack Cabin, made in 1910.
There are so many reasons why collectors clamor to find an original R. Bliss house – the variety, the color, the details – everything about Rufus’ work inspires joy. However, what’s extraordinary to a layman’s eye is that these houses look just as fresh as they did the day they were made. Rufus’ workers only used seasoned materials for their wood frames, meaning the structures didn’t warp over time. In addition, the full-color lithography process meant that the colors retained their brilliancy better than paint.
In 1914 the company sold their popular toy-making division to a regional competitor, Massachusetts-based firm Manson & Parker. This company carried on the Bliss legacy until 1935, although the production was greatly limited during the final years. What I find extraordinary about the mini-history of R. Bliss Manufacturing Co is it teaches us to embrace a plot twist. Rufus revolutionized one industry and while he could have easily rested on that success, he decided to pursue new adventures. And everything he took on bore his signature – passion, dedication to detail, and joy. For me, my childhood dollhouse was the setting for all sorts of beautiful imaginings and it’s wonderful to see how the years may come and go, but the love of play remains! Seems like a pretty good legacy to be a part of – tell us what plot twists inspire you in the comments…