LEGO Features
A Brief History of Belville
by Wes Loder
August 25, 1997

While officially part of the "LEGO System," The Belville sets are on a completely different scale and offer many pieces different from those found in the Mini-fig-scaled sets. Packaged in purple boxes and obviously aimed at primary- and middle-school-aged girls, the Belville sets contain many large pieces, require minimum construction time and feature lots of small plastic dolls. Colors the first two years ranged toward deep pink, pastel greens and blues, and light yellows. 1996 and 1997 sets featured considerable white and more green and dark blue while continuing the pastel shades.

The "adult" dolls are approximately four inches in height; the child dolls are 3.2 inches. This scale closely matches the scale of other "doll house" manufacturers. Arms articulate at shoulders, elbows and wrists. Hands are set at standard LEGO system grip-allowing the Belville people to hold LEGO System items. Legs articulate at the hips, knees and ankles. Heads are molded in three styles: child (boy and girl differentiated by hair), adult female (two different hair styles) and adult male and fit with a ball-socket to the torsos. All the faces are fully sculpted. The faces through 1996 wore quizzical, thoughtful expressions which observers tend to either love or hate. In 1997 LEGO changed the eye printing so that now the figures just stare. Proportions all appear natural although the child heads are larger than normal. The "baby" figures do not articulate and have the their legs set open for riding on hips. In contrast to the LEGO yellow of all mini-figs and the Technic dolls, these dolls all have fairly-natural Caucasian skin colors and hair in either blonde, black or brown.

The sets (in numerical order):

Set # 5810 Vanity Fun. Listed at $4.99 (US dollars)
Introduced March 1995. Special pieces: blonde girl, white kitten, clear bowl (same piece as mini-fig heads) plus furniture. 21 pieces.

Set # 5820 "Leberglass" "Tuinplezier" 17 Dutch guilders. (swing set)
Available August, 1996 in Europe. Blonde girl on white swing inside pink arch (same girl as #5840). Flowers, furniture, black puppy with bowl, pink, cloth "mat."

Set # 5821 Pamela's Picnic Time "Pamela paa picnictur."
Available May 1997 in a blister pack in Europe. Blonde girl, black kitten, picnic hamper basket, green, cloth mat and accessories. 13 pieces.

Set # 5822 Jennifer and Foal 6.50
Available May 1997 in a blister pack in Europe. Brown-haired girl in blue slacks, pink top with white foal, hamper basket with goodies for foal. 7 pieces.

Set # 5830 Fun-day Sundaes. Listed at $9.99
Introduced March 1995. Special pieces: Blonde girl, Blonde female adult, cash register, small full-height base. 30 pieces.

Set # 5835 "Balettstudio." 30 Dutch guiders, 14.99
Available August 1996 in Europe. Blonde girl in tutu (same girl as in # 5890), light yellow full- height base, pink corner wall in weave pattern, four windows form a mirror of wall height, white arch on top, white suitcase, cabinet, bar on arch, jambox, pink, cloth mat. 29 pieces.

Set #5840 Garden Playmates. Listed at $19.75
Introduced March 1995. Special pieces: Blonde girl in skirt, black dog, two "puppies"-grey and black, lots of 4x rounds for columns, large pink roof pieces, First set to have leaf pieces. 87 pieces.

Set # 5853 Lucinda and Cressida, "Cirkusprinsesse." 8.00
Introduced May 1997 in blister pack in Europe. Black-haired girl in black boots, pink, star-speckled top and green skirt and white pony. Note white bridle and pink saddle. "I give 10 points out of 10 for the girl's pose." 10 pieces.

Set #5854 Pony trekking, "Telttur." 27.00
Introduced May 1997 in Europe. Grey pony with black saddle and bridle, brown-haired girl in pale pink and yellow and blonde girl in riding helmet and boots, black puppy. Green cloth tent with blue, yellow and pink polkadots, green BURP (!), campfire, Fabuland cooking pot with ladle, hamper basket, luggage, green apples, dishes, sleeping bags-all on a pale green full-height base. Includes writing paper. 57 pieces.

Set # 5855 Riding Stables. 65.00
Introduced May 1997 in Europe (replaces 5880). Two girls in riding boots with helmets, one with brown hair and pink top, one blonde with blue trousers and white and pale blue top. One adult blonde female also in riding attire, pink top, white breeches. One black and one brown pony, one brown foal, black and brown tack. one grey cat and two kittens, dog. Stable is light blue full-height baseplate plus light green plate. Upstairs is yellow plates on white "walls," two sleeping bags and access via green ladder. Includes paddock, supplies and other accessory items. Incudes writing paper.

Set # 5860 Love 'n Lullabies [Amour et berceuses; Canciones de Cuna].
Listed at $21.00 Introduced September 1994. Special pieces: brown-haired, skirted female (Mother?), baby, cradle, "toys," wall and full-height base. Only one of original sets with no children. 52 pieces.

Set # 5870 Pretty Playland [Ravessante cour de jeu; Precioso patio]. Listed at $42.00.
Introduced September 1994. Special pieces: Blonde girl with skirt, Black-haired boy, large turntable, slide, skateboard, cedar tree, black dog, green weave walls and full-height base. 95 pieces.

Set # 5874 Hospital Nursery (name?)
Introduced 1997 in Europe (replaces 5860). One adult female with brown hair in nurse's pantsuit uniform, two babies, one in blue, one in pale green. Pale blue rectangular base with white weave walls, two yellow cribs with tiny cloth sleepers, bibs, chair, pink double cabinet with sink and changing table, other nursery accessories.

Set # 5875 "Buhashure?" Hospital? "Ziekenhuis" 70 Dutch guiders. 34.99.
Available August 1996 in Europe. Four figures: a blonde nurse, a black-haired doctor, a black- haired boy and a blonde girl. Pale blue full-height base, white weave walls, two hospital beds, lounge chair, television. table, flowers, cast for child and other hospital-specific items.

Set # 5880 Prize Pony Stables. Listed at $54.00.
Introduced September 1994. Special pieces: two girls, both in red-and-white riding habits, one blonde, one brown-haired. One white and one black pony, one foal, lots of riding accessories, two sleeping-bag beds, upstairs for beds above stable, cat. 119 pieces.

Set # 5890 Pretty Wishes Playhouse. Listed at $99.00.
Introduced September 1994. Special pieces: Black-haired adult male, adult blonde female, blonde girl-both with skirts, baby, dog, cat, swimming pool, palm tree, column pieces for upstairs with bedroom. Downstairs has small kitchen, second bedroom, television, living room area with round tables and chairs. 222 pieces.

Set # 5895 "Villa Belville" 160 Dutch guiders.
Available August 1996 in Europe (replaced 5890). Another house but with white weave walls upstairs and dark pink walls downstairs. Bathroom upstairs complete with towels, bedrooms downstairs and full-equipped kitchen with white cabinets with pink doors, a black Fabuland pot and teapot and vent over the stove, high chair and table with chairs, outdoor barbeque pit, playpen, chaiselounge. An adult male with brown hair, blonde woman with green top and skirt, blonde girl mostly dressed in pale pink.

Set # 5136 Belville accessories Listed at $3.50.
Appeared in 1995. Includes two skirts, hair pieces and bows, teddy bear, brush, etc. 10 pieces.

Set # 5395 Belville hospital equipment.
Available August 1996?. Includes crutch, re-moveable cast, medical equipment and white skirt.

Belville Timeline:

September 1994:

5860 Love 'n Lullabies 1994-1995 US 1994-1996 in Europe
5870 Pretty Playland 1994-1995 US same in Europe
5880 Prize Pony Stables 1994 only US 1994-1996 in Europe
5890 Pretty Wishes Playhouse 1994 only US 1994-1996 in Europe

March 1995:

5136 Belville accessories 1995 only US 1995- in Europe
5810 Vanity Fun 1995 only US 1995-1996 in Europe
5830 Fun-day Sundaes 1995 only US 1995-1996 in Europe
5840 Garden Playmates 1995 only US 1995-1997 in Europe

August 1996:

5395 Hospital accessories 1996- in Europe
5820 Swing set 1996- in Europe
5835 Ballet Studio 1996- in Europe
5875 Hospital 1996- in Europe
5895 Villa Belville [replaces 5890] 1996- in Europe

May 1997:

5821 Pamela's picnic time
5822 Jennifer and foal
5853 Lucinda and Cressida (circus princess)
5854 Pony trekking
5855 Riding stables [replaces 5880]
5874 Baby Hospital [replaces 5860]

From the mid-Seventies through the early Eighties LEGO offered a series of brick-based rooms for girls. Each set contained pieces to create a specific room in a house, or a set of furniture. Most of the sets came with the larger ball-headed figures that pre-dated the mini-figs. Three of these sets made it to the United States in 1979: the bathroom, living room and a kitchen. A bedroom followed in 1980. Called the "Homemaker" sets in the United States they do not not appear to have been a commercial success and disappeared by 1983 or '84.

One might be tempted to see the Belville series as a Nineties reincarnation of the Homemaker series. The Homemaker series are important because they tell us that LEGO has been down this road before, but I think it would be mis-leading to assume that Belville is warmed-over Homemaker. The Homemaker sets contained no walls, no pastel bricks and no "dolls." Without walls, how was a builder to incorporate these sets into a house? And I do not see how any girl could have developed an attachment to the round, ever-smiling figures that came with these sets. The strength and beauty of all real dolls lie in the power of well-sculpted or designed faces to evoke emotional attachment on the part of the person who owns and/or plays with it. The ball-heads were clever but not dolls.

LEGO has attempted to solve some of the Homemaker series' problems with Belville. The Weave walls and full-height columns give the child vertically-enclosed dimensions without adding substantial costs, weight or numbers of pieces. The pastel colors and numerous hearts clearly identify these sets as "for girls." The dolls allow full action, limited dressing and undressing, identification and infinite posing possibilities.

So what has happened? Has LEGO succeeded? Or has another of its girl-marketing efforts bombed?

Belville did not do well in North America. Reports from Europe are more equivocal. LEGO introduced the series with some publicity in the early fall of 1994. Within two months the stores in this country were starting to heavily discount the sets. By January 1995, Pretty Playhouse and Prize Pony

Stables had disappeared from most stores. Neither of these sets appeared in the 1995 North American catalog. The small, modestly-priced sets that appeared in March 1995 seem to have been somewhat more successful but I have seen none of the Belville sets in large numbers at any US store since late 1995 (with a couple of exceptions where the store obviously took on a special order). None of the Belville sets appeared in the 1996 North American catalog.

Why? Part of the problem may be that LEGO has been too successful at what it has tried initially to be. LEGO was the third-largest selling category of toys in 1995. Every toy department puts all the LEGO sets together in one place-knowing that large numbers of customers come looking just for LEGO. This is great, except that most customers only think LEGO = construction toy. Duplo, Technic, LEGO System, Belville-everything is shelved together. Is this the best way? I don't know. I do know that Belville sets are not really construction sets. They are doll house sets.

Wouldn't they be better off being shelved in the doll house section of a toy department? I do not know the answer to that. Putting the LEGO trains with other model trains in the Toys R Us stores does not seem to have helped the LEGO trains sell one-way-or-another, but it does point out that once a manufacturer is tagged with one category in the public's mind, it becomes extremely difficult to sell something else. Even after five years of marketing in this country, most Americans seem totally unaware that LEGO has trains available for purchase.

The withdrawal of Belville from the North American Market would seem to indicate that LEGO has decided that Belville was another unsuccessful marketing specialization. However, the introduction of four new sets in August 1996 in Europe and the addition of six more sets in 1997 would indicate both a commitment and some financial return. But will any of these sets ever make it to North America?

The latest wrinkle in this marketing question is the introduction of the new LEGO Scala line in March of 1997. LEGO had brought out a line for girls called "Scala" in the early Eighties that consisted of make-it-yourself, plastic jewelry based on LEGO plates and flats. It was apparently a commercial failure and disappeared after two years. However, in March, 1997, LEGO announced a new Scala line consisting of eight-inch-scale dressing dolls with hair and cloth clothing. The sets are available in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria and France. Each set consists of a doll and accessories to outfit one room. The largest sets consist of a cottage and a house for these sets to go into.

The slender dolls with long hair immediately remind the viewer of Barbie dolls but the dolls wear flats and use LEGO plates to stand. The furnishings appear to be of better quality and be more realistic. They also indicate a wider variety of actvities for the Scala girls to get involved in (no hanging out at the beach with Ken).

The furniture appears to use the standard LEGO bumps for assembly and quite a few Belville accessories, such as the watering can, the cat and kitten, the brushes, etc. have moved to Scala. This would lead me to suspect that the Scala figures use the LEGO System "grip" in their hands.

Will this series succeed? Will be make it at the expense of Belville? Is there room in the toy stores and little girls' hearts for yet another dressing doll? Stay tuned.

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This article is copyright 1997 Wes Loder.

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