The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee
Lee spent an enormous amount of time on each diorama, collecting miniature furniture from all over the world on her travels, and making many of the items herself. (Botz writes that she once even corrected a doll furniture company for getting the scale slightly wrong.) Sometimes Lee purchased ready-made furnishing of high quality and other times she commissioned a carpenter to make what she wanted. The little buildings, from cabins to three-room apartments to garages, were also fashioned from her design, built on a scale of one inch to one foot. Carpenter Ralph Mosher worked with her for eight years, and when he died his son, Alton, took over. They lived at the Rocks, in a house that Lee provided, and managed to turn out an average of three Nutshells per year, although some years were slower than others. Each one cost about the same amount as an average house at that time.
And it was no surprise, for the amount of detail Lee demanded involved many hours of painstaking work. She made each doll by hand, as Botz describes it: "She began with loose bisque heads, upper torsos, hands meant for German dolls, and with carved wooden feet and legs. She attached these loose body parts to a cloth body stuffed with cotton and BB gun pellets for weight and flexibility. She carefully painted the faces in colors and tones that indicated how long the person had been dead." Lee added sweaters and socks that she'd knitted with great difficulty on straight pins, and items of clothing that were meticulously hand-sewn.
Once the dolls were ready, Lee would decide just how each should "die," and proceed to stick knives in them, paint signs of decomposition on their pale skin, or tie nooses around their necks and hang them up. By far, the majority of victims were female, and some were children even a baby. All of the dolls were white, and many lived in economically deprived circumstances, a long way from Lee's safe and privileged world. From her detached distance, she must have enjoyed getting everything just right.
In the rooms or yards, she placed tiny cigarettes she'd rolled, clothespins she'd whittled, books or newspapers she had prepared, and prescription bottle labels she had printed by hand. A trash bag would contain opened cans and boxes, a sink half-peeled potatoes, and an ashtray too many stubbed-out butts. Sometimes Lee used items from charm bracelets or Cracker Jacks boxes, and a "mouse" caught in a trap was actually a pussy willow bud. There seemed no end to her innovation.
Her carpenters, too, were instructed to make doors and windows that actually worked, with shades that rolled up and locks with miniature keys that opened them. In some rooms, Lee placed scaled-down miniatures that the tiny children might play with miniatures inside miniatures. And there were always subtle clues an open beer bottle, bullet casings, or a pile of letters that would become instrumental in the seminars. Lee labeled the dioramas with titles like "Unpapered Bedroom," "Kitchen" or "Burned Cabin," and each of the 19 scenarios told a complicated story.